Sorry, but we'll never achieve 'just right'


You're Goldilocks.

We're the Three Bears.

And we can never get it "just right."

It is a steady drone in the background most of the time, but as we barrel down the homestretch of this hotly competitive presidential election year, it has become a deafening drumbeat: The mass media have a liberal bias!

As the self-appointed ombudsman for this corner of the mass media, it is my responsibility to respond to this scathing obloquy. And my response is a fist-pounding, shouting from the rooftops ... well, yeah, too often.

And, every now and then, a little conservative bias sneaks in, too. But, admittedly, the media lists to the left.

In 2004, a couple of UCLA professors did a study of the news content -- not the editorials and commentaries -- of various major newspapers and television news programs. They found that with the exception of Fox News' Special Report and the Washington Times, all the media news content tended left of center, even the news pages of The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages are solidly conservative. And Fox, while right of center, was closer to the center than any of the three nightly network newscasts.

The results echoed previous academic findings.

One 1990 study concluded, "But though bias in the media exists, it is rarely a conscious attempt to distort the news. It stems from the fact that most members of the media elite have little contact with conservatives and make little effort to understand the conservative viewpoint. Their friends are liberals, what they read and hear is written by liberals."

This past week I conducted an informal survey of the Review-Journal's newsroom staff -- reporters, editors, sports writers, columnists, photographers, artists -- asking who they favor at this point in the presidential election. The results were 3-to-1 in favor of the Obama-Biden ticket. In fact, there were as many undecideds as there were supporters of McCain-Palin. Frankly, I suspect the ratio is really closer to 4-to-1 when you factor in those who declined to respond.

That's the kind of people who get into this business. Some grow out of it. Some don't.

Now, does this mean the "news" portion of the newspaper has a liberal bias? Not necessarily.

Professional journalists try to be objective, try to discern the truth, tell the facts and let the chips fall where they may, whether it helps or hurts those with whom they agree. But our language is rich and nuanced. Every word contains subtle color, texture and spin. Assumptions can sneak in no matter how hard we try.

This past week I fielded a number of calls from people complaining about the recent commentaries by op-ed columnist Erin Neff. They often started with words to the effect: "You call that fair and unbiased reporting?"

No, I responded, I call it column writing. Columnists analyze and express opinions. The better ones strike a nerve, causing those who agree to stand up and cheer and those who disagree to wad up the paper and fling it across the room.

Do I agree with Neff's conclusions? No. But as I explained to several callers, you cannot successfully defeat an argument you've never heard. We try to give our readers an interesting sampling of opinions.

As for the news articles, we'll continue to strive for objectivity but realize we'll never achieve "just right."

In this age of information overload, it is like drinking from a fire hose. If you are so inclined you can isolate yourself from contrary opinions and never have your "faith" challenged.

Those who accuse the mass media of bias make no pretext of being open-minded, and are demanding not objectivity but a bias that matches their own.

The problem with assessing the level of another's bias is sort of like the theory of relativity. The speed at which something is approaching is not merely the speed of the other object. There is also the factor of the observer's trajectory.

The Review-Journal gets accused to being biased from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives accuse us of being liberal. Liberals accuse us of being conservative. I can't recall anyone accusing the paper of being biased in favor of his point of view.

No, then we are merely called "correct."

Goldilocks, consume news and opinions with a discerning ear. And it shouldn't always have to be "just right."

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.

 

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