Newsroom Pros Reveal Candid Truth About Media Bias

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The panel included the Managing Editor of one of the leading national daily newspapers, the Washington Bureau Chief of a well-known wire service, the Chief Content Officer of a multinational mass media company that publishes hundreds of magazines, including perhaps the most popular newsweekly, and the vice president of content and news for a daily news broadcast on a large subscriber-based cable network. The topic, loosely organized under the title “Journalism in the Age of Trump,” drew a roomful of national business writers and editors, as well as several students from the Journalism school hosting the event.

Though billed as a discussion on “Fake News” and “Virtual Reality,” the commentary quickly turned to media bias. These newsroom pros were surprisingly candid. The Managing Editor bluntly revealed what we all suspected: Journalism today tends to attract those from only one side of the aisle (the liberal side). Furthermore, he said the vast bulk of the nation’s national journalists reside in only four cities: New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

In other words, he said, today’s national newsrooms lack diversity. He’s not referring to the usual benchmarks – sex, race, religion, or even economic status. He meant there’s a lack of diversity in both philosophical orientation (journalists are almost universally all liberal) and geographic distribution (journalists are concentrated in big cities on the coasts). This insularity results in an echo chamber of confirmation bias, which only naturally leads to a bias in news reporting.

At this point, the Managing Editor admitted he could not name a single person in his newsroom that voted for Trump. He challenged the other panelists if they could. Only the wire service Bureau Chief was able to say she knew people in her newsroom that voted for Trump.

These journalism leaders recognize there’s bias in news reporting at the national level. At the same time, they have adopted a Seinfeld-esque “not that there’s a problem with that” tone. In truth, from America’s very founding, the press has exhibited a flair for bias. Indeed, that’s why we have the first amendment. Short of libel (in the print profession) and slander (on the television and radio side of the business), media companies are free to say whatever they desire.

Not only is there nothing illegal with biased reporting, for most of American history, journalism has been predicated on bias. And not just any type of bias, but tabloid-like exaggerated bias. Think back not just to the founding of America but to the early nineteenth century pamphlets amplifying certain political candidates and decrying their opposition. Furthermore, recall the hyperbole of yellow journalism in the early twentieth century that both instigated the war with Spain and greased the legislation wheels of progressivism.

It was only a few decades – from World War II through the end of the 1960s that the reporting of national news took on an aura of refined objectivity. Certain sensational and unsettling facts simply weren’t reported. Political foibles, whether they be serious (backroom dealing and the occasional small scandal) or irrelevant (FDR’s wheelchair or JFK’s womanizing), were left out of stories. Why? Because reporting them might have been viewed as “uncouth” or biased.

That changed in the late 1960s during the ascendency of the “New Journalism” that focused on “truth” rather than “facts.” It reached its peak when Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation toppled a presidency. Ever since, every young reporter has dreamed of duplicating that feat.

That blatant desire, as the Managing Editor explained, has led to an excess. For example, when a reporter came to him and told him how incredulous it was that Trump overturned an Obama policy “simply” by issuing an Executive Order, the Managing Editor had to remind that reporter that Obama’s policy itself was predicated on “simply” an Executive Order. The panel moderator then chimed in. She warned that news reporting might be on the verge of a “boy who cried wolf” moment.

I asked the panel if they knew of any way to bring more diversity to their newsrooms. While they failed to provide a practical answer, it seems several things are apparent. First, the consolidation of the media industry in the last few decades followed by the sharp reduction in workforce following the 2008/09 recession has centralized reporting functions. This means there are less reporters out in the field every day. This has led to the lack of geographic diversity.

Second, as long as journalism schools continue to attract and matriculate in a manner that prevents philosophical diversity, the news media’s hand will remain tied behind it’s back. When I brought this up to the cable news vice president, he offered this idea: Don’t hire journalism students, hire people who majored in the sciences.

In some ways, this makes sense. Good science has both an advocacy side (creating a specific hypothesis to test) and an objective side (accepting the results of the test, even if that means rejecting the hypothesis). Good scientists must focus solely on the facts revealed in the experiment, not any convenient truth embedded in the hypothesis. Similarly, good reporters can only construct a story once all the facts are known. They can’t cherry pick facts to fit the story, no matter what “truth” that story supports.

That’s the candid truth about what news reporters can and cannot do.

Columnists, on the other hand, can do whatever they want. 🙂

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