Tucker Carlson goes on and on about how we must all give Donald Trump a fair shot, momentarily letting amnesia cloud his memory. You chuckle as you recall his “fair” coverage of Barack Obama and change the channel. Now it’s Rachel Maddow giving a 20-minute monologue about corruption in the Trump campaign. This is the same woman who didn’t seem to have any morals when it was Hillary Clinton and her camp in the spotlight. Next. Now we have Anderson Cooper. Now it gets a bit more complicated. With Carlson and Maddow, you know what you’re getting. They each have agendas and spout their blatant opinions all night long. But what about when a journalist decides to go the old-fashioned route? When you have a pretty solid guy who appears to cover both sides? Is he really unbiased? Is that even possible?
In order to answer these questions, one must first establish what, exactly, journalistic bias is. According to Holly Stocking & Paget Gross, “biases are normally thought of as the inappropriate intrusion of subjective opinion into an otherwise factual account.” A biased journalist is not giving the full picture, but rather, a chunk of it, particularly the chunk that he likes. With this definition you might think it’d be easy to spot a biased journalist miles away. To some degree, you’d be right. It wouldn’t take more than five minutes listening to Carlson or Maddow to know that objectivity is far from their minds. However, according to Stocking & Gross, there is a different type of bias that is a bit less obvious and a heck of a lot more dangerous. “Cognitive biases,” as they put it, “consist of a variety of ways of thinking that constrain one’s perceptions and interpretations of the world.” These are the biases that journalists don’t even realize they have. They’re the biases that have been clandestinely polluting newspapers and newscasts since the very beginning.
By nature, every single person sees the world in his or her own unique way. No two human beings have the same set of eyes, and because of race, class, gender, and personal experiences, we all have a very specific set of beliefs. To the extent that people cannot choose their race or gender, they also cannot choose how they view the world. Fighting against these beliefs – or pretending they don’t exist – is next to impossible. As a matter of fact, research has shown that even when people are instructed to be objective, they will seek and select information that confirms their predisposed beliefs. In no way are most journalists trying to be vindictive or cunning. They’re merely trying to prove what they believe is correct. They have a very specific way of thinking because of their own biases that, many times, they don’t even realize exist. It’s second nature for them, the same way you pour water into your glass each morning instead of nail polish remover.
In a 1976 study, people were shown a video in which they were asked to observe two separate interactions. The first consisted of two white males while the second consisted of one black man and one white. When describing the interactions of the whites, they referred to physical interplay as a bump or accidental lean. When reviewing the interactions between the white and black man, however, the same exact actions on the part of the black were reported as a shove. This is not a case of racism, but rather, labeling. Categorizing people as “typical black” or “typical white” seems unfair, unjust, and plain wrong. In many ways, it is, but in many ways it’s simply human nature. Labeling and categorizing different things helps people make connections and draw conclusions quickly, a survival mechanism that dates back to the prehistoric era. How can we expect journalists to simply turn this switch off in their brains? It would be impossible.
There are times bias isn’t even prevalent in the stories a journalist covers, but rather, the selection of the stories a journalist covers. As extensive as newspapers seem to be – The New York Times probably kills five forests a day – the truth of the matter is that they cannot possibly cover it all. With a finite number of writers, editors, and – especially – hours in the day, decisions must be made. Say, for example, a news director has only one more reporter available, but three possible stories to cover: a Planned Parenthood protest, an LGBT parade, and a rape/murder a few blocks away. He or she has to make a decision, which comes down to one thing, really: which story is most important. Naturally, the news director is going to draw on his or her own personal experiences, views, and opinions to come to that conclusion. Simply put, there is nothing objective about allocating news coverage.
No matter how truthful one tries to be, any number of biases will surely find their way into the news. Arguably one of the biggest detriments of bias is the underrepresentation of certain groups of people. If every news editor and news director decides to cover that Planned Parenthood protest, does that mean the LGBT parade basically never happened? Does that mean the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders simply don’t matter?
A perfect example of just how unbalanced news coverage can be is the disparity of news coverage in victims. If you watch or read the news, you would think that nearly ever killer or rapist is black and every victim is white. Crime statistics, however, do not match this narrative. The name Elizabeth Smart is likely familiar to most people in the country. She was a beautiful, blonde girl who was abducted from her home and subsequently featured in nearly every magazine and newspaper for years. What about the name Alexis Patterson? Does that ring a bell? Most likely it doesn’t, despite the fact that she had nearly an identical story occurring one month before Smart’s. The only real difference? She was black. Once again, this is not out of evil or vindictive behavior, but rather, because of cognitive biases. People feel differently about black people than they do white. They feel differently about men than women; the Irish than Italian. It’s simply a matter of personal experiences and stereotypes and labels.
The solution, therefore, is to create newsrooms that look a little more like America. No longer can we have a bunch of white males sitting around a long table, smoking cigars and knocking back glasses of whiskey. That would make for a very one-dimensional newspaper telling a one-sided story. Naturally, similar groups of people are going to have similar points of view. They’re likely going to cover similar topics and give airtime to similar causes. Why? They’re biased, but that’s nothing new because we all are. The trick, therefore, is not to eliminate these biases, but to expand them.
When you have a diverse group of people covering the news, you’re going to have a newspaper or newscast that actually resembles America. You can’t stop the woman who was put up for adoption as a baby from wanting to rally behind Pro-Life marches any chance she gets. What you can do, however, is throw in a young man who possibly has different views. And someone who’s Chinese. And African American. And transgender. The best thing you can do is expand the newsroom in a way that every group of people gets representation. You need as many people with as many different ideas and beliefs sitting around the editorial table to get the full picture each day. As a matter of fact, “it has been long argued that the reason Washington Post police reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were able to break the Watergate story was because they did not see things in the same way as those on the White House Beat” (Stocking & Gross 24). The only reason Woodward and Bernstein covered this story at first was because it at first presented itself as nothing more than a trivial burglary. Had Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post known the significance of this burglary at the time, he likely never would have assigned these two novices to the story. The veteran White House Beat writers would’ve surely done a better job, but ironically, that turned out to not be true. It took two entirely different sets of eyes to crack the case.
Of course, diversifying the newsroom is not going to solve the problem entirely. With deadlines, space constraints, and specific news policies, journalists are often swimming against a very strong current. They might not always have the time to explore all the sides they would like to explore and definitely don’t have the room to say all the things they would like to say. However, this is of no fault to the journalist and has absolutely nothing to do with bias. Believe it or not, far greater hindrances exist in the world of journalism than bias. For instance, Eric Alterman says that “most reporters are ignorant about most things, which is rarely seen as a barrier to coverage.” No one really speaks about these journalistic constraints, simply because it does not fit their narrative. A so-called “biased media” has become one of the most powerful political weapons, whether or not those claims are warranted.
In the year 2017, Donald Trump has made famous the term, “biased liberal media.” If someone reports something he does not like or does not wish to believe, he simply hurls this phrase into the universe. What many fail to realize is that this is not a new concept. Richard Nixon, for instance, deemed the press the enemy. Of course, the press was not so much an enemy as it was a collective body simply seeking the truth, and journalists were later vindicated when Nixon’s corruption and dishonesty were revealed. Still, it didn’t stop him from bashing the profession of journalism, and Donald Trump has clearly taken a page or two out of Nixon’s playbook.
The press is not perfect and they’re certainly not all gems. They have their own opinions and biases and lives and families that might affect some of the things they say. And they’re going to screw up sometimes, like when Brian Williams fibbed or Dan Rather failed to verify. But we don’t live in a world with a “biased media.” They each might have their own biases and opinions, but collectively, for the most part, they don’t have hidden agendas. Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow, arguably, aren’t even journalists. They clearly don’t seek the truth, as they spin the same tired narrative each and every night. They’re not listening to both sides or seeking all the facts. People like Carlson and Maddow actually do a disservice to journalists everywhere because they give everyone a false impression of what journalism is all about. They turn it into some sort of political game full of tunnel vision and cheap shots. Yes, that is something to worry about, but a true journalist is not, and although it’s not possible for anyone to be completely objective, his reporting will be. A true journalist will have his own set of beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints, but he will report not because of them, but in spite of them.