Correction: Bias made me do it ...

Longtime journalist and columnist Mike Causey reflects on an enduring problem in media—worsening these days—of news reports marred by more than a touch of bias. Still he reminds us, lest we forget, much of our press is good, fair and helpful.

Being a member of the news media (whatever that is, these days) is mostly fun. Over a half century in (1) newspapers, (2) radio stations and (3) TV (off-and-on, though I must admit mostly off) I learned some interesting stuff. Reporters and editors can be very, very smart. So can proof-readers (when the outlets I worked for had them) whose job was to read everything before it got into print or went out over the air.

But a few of the stupidest people I’ve ever observed have also been comrades-in-arms. Not many, but some. Stupid is probably the wrong word. Maybe “biased” is a better one. Like confirmation bias, which all of us have a touch of. And some more than others. But if you want to do well in the media, you have to be willing to accept arguments and facts that don’t jibe with what you believe. If half the facts in the story—numbers or events you were planning to use—turn out to be provably false, they’ve gotta go. May not fit with the narrative—or with the prevailing thoughts of a certain age, sex, race, religion or region. But if they are wrong they must be discarded. Or if already used, corrected. Not a perfect system, but better than nothing. Especially in this era of electronic journalism.

Example: Suppose your name is John Q.V. Jones III. And suppose your local newspaper prints a Page One headline which says, more or less, “John Q.V. Jones III Is a Pervert.” Or “Swindler.” Or “Kicks Puppies.” Or something really bad. Which all your neighbors, and your kids, then see.   But, say, two weeks later you are found innocent, or they learn their source was wrong. Then the paper runs a correction, on page C-4 (not Page One like the original allegation) which says, oh, by the way “John Q.V. Jones is NOT a Pervert.” Or swindler. And hasn’t ever kicked a puppy (well, not as far as we know.). How much good will that correction do you? Your career? Your standing in the community? Maybe some. Maybe a lot. But there is still a good chance that when researching your obit a young reporter will look up your history (missing the correction part) and write something with a headline like: “JOHN Q.V. JONES III, LOCAL PERVERT, DEAD AT 76.” Then 10 days later, again, the paper runs a correction of the error. A little late for you and your well-wishers. If you have any left. Just a thought!

I also have problems with “journalists” who are biased and don’t know it. Many are and know it. But of those who are but who don’t know it, they truly think they report only the revealed truth. If you know what to look for you can see or hear it. At least sometimes. For instance:

Suppose you’re one of these biased journalists, and there is somebody you like who has come to the fore. He or she is running for public office. If you like them you say they are youthful (42, or whatever age), graduated with honors from Harvard, Yale or Princeton. And did public service.

If you don’t like them you can say that “they say,” or “claim,” to be in their “early 40s.” Or that he/she attended an “Ivy League” school and allegedly got good grades.

If you follow the news or current events, you see or hear or read it all the time. A doddering or flabby presidential candidate or president is somehow described as the “healthiest person to ever run for the office.” Or, alternatively, described as somehow sleepy, confused or whatever.  My point is, oftentimes the reporting is actually editorializing. Sometimes the media people who author this kind of story actually believe what they are saying is straight-shooting. Well, maybe most of the time. But that is not a “best” practice. (And it’s hard for people to actually see, especially those with one—politically Right or Left, but ALWAYS correct—source.)

My hometown has two good newspapers. I have actually worked for both. Each of these outlets has its good points. One, in my humble opinion, is much better than the other. At least I think it is more balanced more of the time than its rival. But both have their flaws. There is obvious (and often not-so-obvious) bias—of the types I just mentioned. Reading both each day (which I do) can be confusing and, sometimes, amusing. Because it’s like reading two newspapers from different universes. They may get details of the solar eclipse in the same way. But their reporting on the impact, if any, on the darkness at noon can vary widely.

That said, much of the media is good. As fair as possible. And helpful. But unfortunately not enough on the good side, if I’m right. As most reporters think they are and all columnists know they are!

Final thought: I once worked for a big radio station. Loved it and the people. Reporters less stuffy than my print colleagues (and not as good-looking as their TV counterparts.) The editor—a cool, super smart guy—once terrifyingly wished out loud for a bus to fly off a local cliff so his people could report it first. Likely hyperbole—and anyway now he’s gone I think it’s okay to tattle. Point is he was, in my memory, one of the good guys. Maybe something to think about!

This column has been updated (shortened to fit a companion .pdf file.)

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