Jan 22, 2017
A critique of "unbiased journalism," and why not everyone is a Journalist.
Wanted to talk about a pet peeve, not really an issue as such. Unbiased Journalism.
You're out there saying, "But wait, unbiased journalism is a very important issue!" I understand your feeling that way. But actually it's only an issue because of misuse of terms. Everyone who has a job in what we still call the Press for some reason, wants to be called a Journalist. This is understandable. Journalist sounds like a cool and hip job. Assuming anyone not my age still says cool and/or hip. Most jobs in the press, quite frankly, sound kinda geeky, and perhaps even sleezy. Journalist means one particular vocation, or perhaps an avocation, and not all of them.
Let's go back in history for a bit. The Press actually started with folks who actually used presses, to print newspapers. On actual paper. And at least hypothetically, newspapers conveyed news. News was gathered by news reporters -- not journalists, reporters. News is very simple. It's what happened, who what when where and how. That's all. Not why. Why is not news. If someone said what they thought was why, I suppose that's news, the "somebody said" part is. That's something that happened or didn't. But that last bit is hopefully done with caution, because "why" itself, is not News.
As for Bias, well, a news report is not biased, if it simply states who what when where and how. It can't be. What happened happened, and it's news. If it didn't happen, then it's not news, it's a lie. If someone lies, the lie is news, and the truth is news to demonstrate, if you will, the truth about the lie.
And a news reporter, had better not be a Journalist.
A journalist is a whole 'nother sort of animal. Back in the day, most people didn't travel much at all. It's still pretty rare for folks to go very far from where they were born. Travelling was something special, and usually very expensive. Sometimes some fairly well-known person would get to travel out of their own home area, maybe even to another country on another continent. They might keep a journal of their adventures on their travels, possibly so they could write a book later. And they might agree to occasionally share a page or two of their travel journal with a newspaper, and they might well get paid a bit for doing that. So they became a Journalist.
Is a Journalist biased? Of course, absolutely. A journalist is supposed to be biased. We read the works of a journalist because an interesting person is visiting interesting places, doing interesting things for interesting reasons. We don't just want an elementary school "What I Did This Summer." We want their impressions. We want their opinions. We demand their biases. If they are not biased, they are boring, and we'll go read the news instead.
Travel today is marginally cheaper, and it is marginally easier for regular folks to go some other places. But still, most of us don't leave the country without wearing a uniform and possibly carrying a government issued firearm. Journalists may go to places we could conceivably visit. But we still expect their impressions. We still demand bias. An "Investigative Journalist" is exploring another sort of place, the dark and stinking underbelly of a beast with an innocent and mostly pristine face. They often can't be sure what happened, they can only draw conclusions from what limited facts they can gather. Again, we demand bias, and hope they are biased in the same direction we are. We hope they value the truth, and strive toward it. But we want their attitudes to be part of their stories.
The news is just the news. Does this mean a newspaper can't be biased? No, quite the opposite. In 1886, Adolph Simon Ochs applied the slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print" to the New York Times. Other papers were blatantly sensational. He wanted his paper to be a NEWS paper. From what I've read, he did his best to live up to that. Realistically, newspapers print "all the news that fits." They have to be selective about what they print. They are selective about what gets on the front page, if for no other reason than no more fits.
They are also selling papers, which in turn sells ads. So, like it or not, they have to pick and choose. A news report that is News will state the simple truth, as I said earlier. But given the editors have to select anyway, they select what suits them and sells papers. A newspaper, with the best of intentions, will be biased. A headline, to capture reader attention, will be biased. But news is news, or it is not.
An editor is not a journalist. An editor is an editor. And an editorial is opinion, not news. An editorial is intended to convey the opinion of the paper, usually of the owner, and sometimes of the editor which may not be the same.
A columnist is not exactly a journalist. A columnist expresses opinions, on important or on frivolous subjects, but usually within the day-to-day experience of the reader. A column is not news. A column is intended to convey the personality of the columnist in an entertaining fashion. In doing that, it is at least going to be affected by the opinions of the columnist. If it lacked that columnist's personality, that columnist's biases, it would simply not be worth reading. Even if it does, sometimes it's still not worth reading. But that's another story. You're probably buying the wrong paper.
Editorials and columns are thus, not ever unbiased. Of course they are not. They are opinion.
So, there is no such thing as "unbiased journalism," and there shouldn't be. News is news or it is not. But no news outlet will contain All The News, so it will be selective, and will one way or another be biased. A news outlet, so-called, will also contain opinion. Opinion is opinion. If it isn't biased, then I suppose it isn't opinion, is it?
And let us not forget the news reporter. The news reporter is not a Journalist, doesn't need to be, and can't be while remaining a news reporter. Reporting the news is an honorable profession, when done well. It is usually an unglamorous and unsung profession. Opinion needs a byline. The truth doesn't need a byline. A rose, by any other reporter, will smell as sweet.
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