There’s no such thing as unbiased reporting

Relying on elusive standards of journalistic ‘objectivity’ is misleading, and it is in our best interest to adopt more attainable ideals

There’s no such thing as unbiased reporting

A study conducted by prominent American journalists Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz in 1920 revealed some inconvenient truths about The New York Times’ coverage of the then-recently concluded Russian Revolution: one of the most prominent news organizations in the western world had effectively bungled their coverage of a major historical event. Lippmann and Merz found that the Times’ stories on the revolution were rarely based in fact, but rather shaped by the “hopes of the men who composed the news organization.” Influenced by the outcomes they were banking on, the reporters’ writing lacked the factual accuracy or balanced perspective necessary to deliver an informed report.

Essentially, Lippmann and Merz decried the Times’ coverage as biased. And so, the authors of the study, and presumably much of the public who read it, lost trust in the so-called ‘biased’ tendencies of major media outlets. By way of solution, Lippmann argued that journalism should embrace more of a “scientific spirit” — believing that ultimate fairness, or ‘objectivity,’ could be achieved in journalism so long as the journalists made the study of evidence of verification to be the cornerstone of their work. Thus ensued the era of supposedly ‘neutral’ journalism, when well-trusted news anchors like Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley would deliver stories seemingly without bias and seemingly without lack of context.

The notion of bias in news writing has since become one of colloquial discussion, and it is now one of the most common criticisms of the media. Most often, the label is imparted to news that readers believe is lacking relevant context, or to media outlets whose political views the reader disagrees with. At its most extreme, it is plastered across outraged comment sections and blog posts on the deep web, rooted in a conspiratorial belief that news organizations have pre-determined political agendas and feed purposely slanted reports to the masses.

Such polarization within the news world has resulted in publications whose self-imposed purpose is to provide contrast to what they see as an irreparably biased media landscape. Publications like Breitbart dedicate copious coverage to “Big Journalism,” aimed at debunking the “spin and narratives from the Democrat-media complex,” while outlets like The Intercept position themselves to be highly critical of the methods of mainstream channels like CNN. Even at the university level, publications like The Toronto Beacon claim to have been founded “as a reaction to the current state of journalism,” making specific reference to The Varsity’s coverage of a campus rally in 2016, among other incidents. None of these publications can be equivocated, but they do illustrate the extent to which people are frustrated with mainstream media coverage.

At the same time, it is counterproductive to leave blanket accusations of bias at that — for eliminating all bias from reporting is an impossible task. Reports are created by authors and shaped by editors whose perspectives and personal experiences are inherently injected into the final product. Even when reporting from the scene of the story, journalists make a series of judgment calls based on what they consider to be newsworthy. These decisions may alter information in the story depending on who is tasked with telling it.

In this vein, it should be acknowledged that the notion of ‘objectivity’ underlying the journalistic profession was developed and continues to operate within a context that privileges certain perspectives. It is no coincidence that Lippmann, Merz, Cronkite, and Huntley were all white men, a demographic that continues to hold a steadfast grip on the North American media profession, despite the substantial progress being pursued in this area.

Paradoxically, being ‘unbiased,’ ‘objective,’ or ‘neutral’ are themselves ideals laden with normative content, inherently dependent on the standards journalists use to determine the importance of information and to communicate what they believe is the truth. A bigger problem is that the normative nature of bias is effectively masked by widely accepted, seemingly neutral codes of ethics and best practices that have permeated the journalism industry. Figures like Cronkite were not delivering an unbiased account of the news, but rather an account shaped by the collective decisions of the CBS news team. In the codes of ethics of countless publications — The Globe and MailThe New York Times, and, yes, The Varsity — objectivity and impartiality are portrayed to be the ideal standard of a news report, despite that standard being ultimately unachievable.

The assumption that journalists need to annihilate all bias from their reporting imparts on them an insurmountable undertaking. This is certainly not intended to diminish the critical role journalism plays in our society; information-gathering and truth-telling are undoubtedly in the public interest. But pursuing best practices should entail a reconsideration of the language we use to describe the ideal state of the media, and in turn, shift our understanding of journalism away from amorphous or unattainable standards.

One solution that has been offered, including by our former Editor-in-Chief last year, is to substitute ‘unbiased’ coverage with ‘balanced’ coverage. The idea of balance, in the journalistic context, is based on the deceptively simple notion that all figures and institutions relevant to a story be given a fair chance to play a part in telling it. This also entails all pieces of information being put in factual perspective, meaning that truths and mistruths should never be given equal footing. Sometimes this is straightforward; in most cases, it isn’t.

There are also certainly things we can do to address the biases that underlie all journalistic work. The importance of the journalistic process demands such efforts, guided not by an impossible lack of normative ideals, but ultimately by better ones. More importantly, we can make the process by which we determine those ideals public, and we can encourage readers to subject them to thorough scrutiny.

The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics reads, “Fairness is a balanced and impartial presentation of all the relevant facts in a news report, and of all substantial opinions in a matter of controversy. Fairness demands that journalists place inaccurate or misleading public statements in factual perspective.” As opposed to ‘objectivity,’ the goal thereby becomes to strive for balance, which is arguably more concrete.

The procedures that underlie the operations of The Varsity and many other publications reflect that ideal. These include ensuring all figures implicated in a story are given the chance to comment, offering disclosures about potential conflicts of interest, and making source materials available upon request. At a fundamental level, it also includes pulling back the curtain on how the news is made. The Varsity has endeavoured to do this by hosting a Reddit AMA earlier this year, by opening our office to the public, and by writing editorials like this one.

When publications fall short of achieving their objectives, public editors step in. The role of Sophie Borwein’s column in The Varsity, for instance, is not only to critique the publication and respond to reader complaints, but also to offer a perspective that we cannot, in acknowledgment that the journalists who write the news are intrinsically tied to its making.

We can also look to other outlets for guidance. Publications like The Intercept will publish the documentation that an article is based on alongside the original stories. Meanwhile, the Times uses The Reader Center to justify its journalistic choices to its audiences, a tool that has come in particularly useful following the controversy surrounding its profile on a Nazi sympathizer from Ohio. These methods, and others like them, arguably reflect the idea that a newspaper should be in direct, democratic dialogue with its readership.

Finally, recalling concerns about whitewashed, male-dominated newsrooms, promoting a diverse range of perspectives is integral to the pursuit of fair and balanced reporting. Striving for diversity also means being sensitive to the responsibility that journalists have to those persecuted, marginalized, and disaffected members of our society — to offer them a voice and to probe and critique the institutions that hold power against them. This responsibility is not characterized by neutrality, either; it is principled and normative, as it should be.

In the 1920s, Lippmann and Merz rightfully exposed the blatant political slant underlying the methods of a major journalistic institution. In today’s highly fraught media climate, with accusations of bias and fake news flying left and right, our community finds itself at a similar pivotal moment, and the way forward remains unclear. Our shift in perspective toward media bias, however, should also prompt a shift in how readers respond to it, for that response will be integral in shaping what the profession eventually becomes.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Checking for bias

Why newspapers try to evade placement on the political spectrum

Checking for bias

Earlier this summer, The Varsity hosted an “Ask me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit. A reader asked our editors where they thought the newspaper “leaned on the political spectrum.”

It’s a hard question for newspapers. The Varsity — in line with most traditional mainstream media outlets — aims to be objective. But like other newspapers, it often gets accused of bias, most often with reference to the articles in its opinion pages.

A newspaper’s comment section exists to provide opinions on the news, so in one sense it should be biased. Still, newspapers try to embrace a range of opinions in these pages, and for good reason. When all opinion pieces share the same point of view, readers are right to wonder if “toeing the party line,” not thoughtful analysis, determines what gets published.

Responding to the reader’s AMA question, Editor-in-Chief Jacob Lorinc reflected on the commentary written by the paper itself — its unsigned editorials. He conceded that the newspaper’s editorials have lately had a left bent. Admitting he couldn’t point to a recent conservative-leaning board, Lorinc was quick to remind readers that members rotate two to three times per year, so things can quickly change.

But here’s the thing. Just as The National Post leans right and the Toronto Star leans left, The Varsity is always going to be a somewhat left-of-centre publication. It reflects — with some distortion — the campus and city that sustain it. And neither is particularly conservative. Both Torontonians and more educated Canadians — the kind you might find on campus — tend to vote Liberal or NDP. When these are the groups you both draw your writers from and write your stories for, it is hard to see how The Varsity could be anything but.

That said, The Varsity leadership works hard to shed this reputation — as it should. When newspapers too eagerly endorse a set of views, readers are right to doubt whether they are reading facts or partisan talking-points.

In her last column as The New York Times’ Public Editor, Liz Spayd warned against partisan journalism, writing that “whether journalists realize it or not, with impartiality comes authority.” She pointed to the damage the Venezuelan media did to its reputation with Venezuelans during Hugo Chavez’s presidency when, in the absence of any real partisan opposition, it assigned itself the job. The public stopped believing the media was a fair observer of Chavez’s regime.

The Varsity faced a big challenge last year in figuring out how to fairly cover the Jordan Peterson controversy. I was impressed by the self-awareness of its politics that The Varsity brought to its reporting on the issue, and the range of opinions it published. Though I know some readers disagree with me, articles like this or this suggest The Varsity gave real space to more conservative voices writing in opposition to limits to free speech.

Still, I can see why conservative readers often feel shorted. Take, for example, the three most prominently placed articles in The Varsity’s online comment section at the start of the school year. The first article, on diversity in film, argues “more work still needs to be done to ensure women of colour are granted the visibility they deserve.” The second piece, by the editorial board, argues that nationalist rallies have no right to organize on campus. Only the third piece could be said to have more conservative elements, though even here the author advocates wholeheartedly in favour of Canada’s principle of universal healthcare coverage.

The Varsity will naturally gravitate left. It needs to — and for the most part does — carefully monitor this habit. What it shouldn’t do is abandon impartiality altogether. Newspapers that become too ideological or partisan are no longer pursuing the truth or holding power to account. And if they aren’t, who is? In the age of overtly partisan outlets like The Rebel and fake news article generators, I don’t want to find out.