Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting

NOTE: I am reproducing these two essays, both on the impossibility of true impartiality in reporting, because I came across citations to them in my essay "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", and was quite surprised to find I had not reprinted them yet. As I consider them some of my better writing, it seemed odd they had not yet made their way to my new blog. Thus, I have decided to reprint them, even though I am not currently referring to them in any work in progress.

Yesterday I mentioned an old post "The Death of Impartial Media", in which I suggested that we should give up our pretense at having impartial journalism and instead return to the historically, and globally, more common model of having competing, ideological news sources. Having thought about it some more, I have come to the conclusion that not only should we do that, but we must, as there is simply no way to have truly unbiased journalism. So any attempt to maintain an unbiased media will result in nothing but a farce.

Let us look at the basics, things that not even proponents of unbiased journalism will deny. Any given day there are countless happenings, and each of those happenings has countless details. Even if we could somehow provide all those details about each and every thing that happened, it would not be useful news, as readers would be overwhelmed. Instead reporters must decide which events are important enough to require the readers' attention, and then, which details of each happening are significant.

Now, here is where I part with those who believe in the possibility of impartial journalism. I argue that making those decisions inevitably brings in bias, at the vary start of the process. What events you report, what is significant about each, those sort of decisions must rest on some basic criteria, an underlying philosophy. Now, if we all agreed upon some basic philosophical concepts, perhaps we could then have unbiased reporting, at least unbiased within the context of groups which agree upon the basics. 

The problem is, we don't have even that much agreement. Just ask anyone whether the universe is rational or irrational. Whether logic alone can unlock all the secrets of the world. Whether man is rational or irrational. If we cannot agree on even those broad, basic questions, then we have no shared philosophy. Which means that even the big questions of journalism, what is newsworthy, what facts should be mentioned, are themselves answered based on a philosophy which is not shared by all readers. In other words, we disagree enough that even what one chooses to report shows something of an ideological bias.

Let us ignore politics for a moment and look at the question of journalism more generally.

We admit there are special interests which should have their own news outlets. For instance, Jewish journals may find a meeting of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis interesting, while the more general interest news would ignore it. On the other hand, model railroading news would find the release of a new line of train interesting, while general news would ignore it. There we recognize that one's preconceptions colors what news is of interest.,

So why not the same for political bias? Why not news which interests liberals? Or news which is of interest to conservatives? 

Of course some will ask "what about those who have no affiliation? Who have no interest in ideology? Or just want the day's events?"

I suppose some centrists could try to create an ideological outlet catering tot heir interests, and that would probably work for politics. For the rest? Well, there really is no "just news". Think about it. When was the last time you saw a local newscast without SOME "big picture" attached? Even when it is something simple like a murder or robbery, there is almost always some little snippet about police funding, crowded jails, or economic hard times attached. It is very rare to find a news story without some ideology attached.

Of course they could also publish sort sort of "police blotter" type reports, generic listings of the bare facts, drawn from police reports, listing any and all felony arrests or something similar. Perhaps a C-SPAN like news feed of raw happenings in Congress, or a transcript like the Congressional Record. But as the general lack of interest in such unedited news feeds shows, people want their news a bit more pared down and with some interpretation.  And once you introduce that selection and interpretation, you are back int he territory of bias once more.

And that would leave those interested in "straight news" in the same position they are today. Today they watch ideologically slanted news and have to filter out bias. Why would the future be any different. The only change would be, instead of a quiet ideological bias, we would have an overt one.

And int he end, I think that is for the best. Just admit our journalists' ideologies up front, and let the viewers decide. Rather than pretending reporters are "impartial", admit where we stand and leave it up to the market to pick and choose the winners and losers. Isn't that better than constantly lying and keeping up the pretense that journalists are somehow "above the fray", while all the while everyone knows they are nothing of the kind?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/07/31.

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