Media Bias vs. Reader Bias

You'd think after 35 years in this business, I'd be used to charges of media bias, but the truth is that you never really get used to them.

You'd think after 35 years in this business, I'd be used to charges of media bias, but the truth is that you never really get used to them. That's probably a good thing -- soul-searching is good for anybody who takes pride in his craft. At the same time, though, I wish that the reading public would be a little more thoughtful in considering its own bias.

A few years back I taught a graduate seminar on journalism ethics, and we got into some pretty spirited debates over whether objectivity exists. One group held that objective writing is an impossible goal so reporters should give up trying, disclose our bias and let the advocacy fly, much as Fox, MSNBC, Huffington Post and radio talk show hosts do. That may have a place and purpose, but it's not journalism as I like to think of it.

The other view is that while journalists certainly have opinions -- and are entitled to them -- a professional knows how to put those opinions aside and leave them out of the stories he or she reports, much as a lawyer can defend a client he thinks is guilty or a doctor can treat a patient who's committed a crime.There will undoubtedly be lapses, but plenty of people are ready to point them out.

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But this debate about a reporter's obligations leaves out a crucial element: the responsibility of readers to read with an open mind. What becomes increasingly clear in today's world of strong opinions is how much bias the audience brings to the table. That's helpful when the opinions represent an overlooked point of view or an expertise that can inform the argument. But too often it leads to name calling and a shrill attack. Liberal or conservative, readers have opinions of their own and perceive slanted stories whenever the news doesn't support what they want to believe.

All this was brought home to me today by an example that landed on my desk. We wrote a story (opens in new tab) on the Kiplinger site right after the election that predicted that President-elect Obama would try to govern from the center. The story wasn't based on any inside-his-head sources -- just a close reading of what he'd said in the campaign and the realities of the problems he will face. While it's obviously too early to tell if we were right, I'd argue that his appointments so far suggest we were.

But today a reader complained that the story reflected bias on our part. The writer said this of Obama: "With the appointment of his radical friends, even if he were disposed to (govern from the center), it would be impossible." I'm frankly at a loss on how to respond. The reader may have had someone like Tom Daschle (opens in new tab) in mind. He's expected to be named secretary of health and human services and he does have a liberal reputation, but I can easily point to appointments (opens in new tab) such as Robert Gates to stay on at Defense of General James Jones as National Security Adviser, two men with proven centrist credentials who have worked in Republican adminstrations. Deep down, though, I know there is nothing I can say that will affect the views of the unhappy reader because he's not really listening.

His real message -- at least what his comments drive home to me -- is how polarized this country still is, even in this time of economic and military crisis, when much of the center of the country wants to at least hope that Obama can deliver on his promise to find a better way to govern by listening to all points of view and seeking common ground. What's clear from this letter is how difficult that is going to be.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter