Unbiased vs. objective: The real role of media

I was having a discussion with someone recently about media bias, and more specifically about how reporters are biased.

"Of course they are," I said. "They're human. Their job is not to be unbiased, it's to be objective."

Let me explain.

People are biased. We like some candidates better than others. We like some sports teams better than others. We like some dog breeds better than others. We like some foods better than others.

If you take away the biases a person has built up, you take away something of the essence of the person. Something essential — something that maybe led them into writing, into reporting, into being the sort of person people trust enough to talk to.

Objectivity, on the other hand (at least from a journalistic standpoint), is coming at an issue from multiple angles, reporting as many reasonable angles as possible (hang on, we'll get there), and allowing people (readers, viewers, etc.) to reach their own conclusions.

Why do so many journalists seem to have a liberal bias? Because something on the order of 70% of journalists (according to the recurring study The American Journalist) claim liberal views.

So, there's the bias. Now take that bit of information and allow it to color how you take in stories. You should ask your reporters to give you as much information as possible, not tell you how to think about it.

Now, what do I mean as many reasonable angles as possible?

I mean, at some point, you have to stop digging and just get the information out. If you're doing a story on the Patterson-Gimlin footage, maybe you find someone who thinks it was really Bigfoot, maybe you find someone who things it was a Bigfoot costume, and maybe — just maybe — you find someone who thinks it was an alien. But you can't just keep going down the spiral, looking for someone who thinks it was a giant deformed rabbit and claims he has the DNA to prove it.

Even when the Fairness Doctrine was really in effect, it allowed media outlets to stop at some point. You had to give Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders equal time, but you were under no obligation to the Zoltan Istvans of the world.

Not that I don't think Zoltan Istvan wouldn't make a wonderful president. Just he's not exactly really in the running.

We're certainly in an interesting time in journalism. More than ever before, we have the ability to say, simply, "this happened," and we can do it by showing you. But I think journalism really needs to do well at providing context.

To truly act in the public interest, media needs to go back to their role as "The Fourth Estate" — that body, independent of government control, that keeps the power in check.

Journalists aren't just supposed to tell you what the power elite (be it the government, celebrities or big business) are up to, but also provide you with some clues as to what it means in your life.

You should still take in stories with an eye toward understanding where the reporter comes from, but also understand that the reporter's job, fundamentally, is to provide you with more than just a report of what happened. Understand also that, whatever the journalist's biases, most reporters will have some history reporting on the same topic over and over again, so will have wider material to draw on than you will — the same way that you'll have better insight into your job than the journalist will.

I do want to touch a little on news consumer responsibility, too.

Inasmuch as I think it's up to a good journalist to come at stories objectively — give me information and context without judgment — it's up to me as a news consumer to take the information, determine what is fact, what is opinion and what is context. It's also up to me to determine whether I think the journalist fulfills his or her job, but after I do that, it's up to me to determine whether I consume news from that source again, not whether the journalist should be fired.

It's also incumbent upon me to take in news from multiple sources, preferably with a variety of perceived biases — the stuff that overlaps in reports is fact and/or context, the rest is commentary.

It's not my job as a news consumer — and, let's be honest, in this season, a voter — to either take all information without consideration, or to take out my frustrations on people who have presumably been hired and retained because they're good at what they do.

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