Neutrality is obsolete... if it ever truly existed. Journalistic neutrality is a tough sell, really. It always has been. But this shouldn't be at all surprising. Neutrality is difficult to understand, if for no other reason than the fact that neutrality is so foreign, being little more than an abstraction for well-wishers and daydream believers.
Truth be told, bias happens to be one of those unavoidable realities very few journalists and readers are willing to admit, either to or of themselves. Journalists convince themselves that they are just looking at the facts, reporting things as they are. They are just "telling the story." So long as the story remains unread, separated from the context of a biased reader, neutrality is fair game as a fair claim. But the rubber hits the road with the reader. The moment a story is read by those unable to divorce themselves from themselves, neutrality is suspect. Stories made of facts and opinions are suddenly subject to a complex grid of presuppositions and convictions, all relative to the reader. Bias, in the end, turns out being as much perceived as a reality, unwanted but unavoidable.
It always struck me as odd that journalists would be surprised by this. For example, Justin Hinkley
of the Battle Creek Enquirer
recently wrote a blog on this very issue
. "I and several of my colleagues have had a number of conversations about what might have caused this distrust, this anger and perceived bias," he admits, "We haven’t been able to lay a finger on it." Really? Here is a guy neck deep in the biz at a total loss as to why readers have a general distrust of news reporting, perceiving bias in the pages of the paper. Is he unaware of the fact that storytelling requires writers to pick and choose? Are his colleagues oblivious to the harsh reality of emphasis and tone? Has the entire gatekeeper concept alluded them? If so, we have a lot more to worry about than "perceived bias."
Consider for a moment the gatekeeper. Any given paper could report on a great number of things, all from a great variety of angles. Choosing which stories to cover, and deciding from which angles to cover them, is difficult, but it must be done. Hence, the gatekeepers. Some stories are given prominence, others are excluded altogether. Writers choose which facts to reference, which statistics to emphasize, and which people to quote. Such are the tough calls made by the gatekeepers, both big and small.
While doing as much is necessary for the journalist, each and every one of these decisions lend credibility to complaints of bias. Writers know as much. For this reason, journalists have their own checks and balances. One such mechanism is the effort to "report both sides of the story." But is this satisfactory? Of course not. Doing as much forces journalists to portray most differences as neatly divided along oversimplified lines. The truth of the matter, and most matters for that matter, is much more complex because people and issues are much more complex. Dualism may "keep it simple, stupid," but disagreements are rarely simple and those involved are hardly stupid.
It would be horribly unfair to hurl all the blame on an admittedly biased paper and its staff. Believe it or not, readers and journalists have plenty in common, particularly when it comes to bias. Complaints about the bias in others typically flow from the same font: personal bias. Journalists are railed against for limiting space to certain perspectives, covering one story rather than another, omitting some details in exchange for others, or even for the placement of quotes and statistics within the story. It's a lose-lose situation, really. More than that, its unrealistic... and horribly biased.
There we have it, the crux of the matter. Demands or even expectations of neutrality, in its most idealized sense, are horribly unrealistic. The issue, then, ought not be one of neutrality, but fairness. Tell the story. Read the story. Do your best to inform. Do your best to be informed. But accept from the get-go that bias is an unavoidable reality, and that while admitting as much won't assure perfection, it will allow us to reasonably enjoy an imperfect daily for 50 cents.
Labels: Battle Creek Enquirer, bias, Jeremiah Bannister, journalism, media bias, media neutrality, Paleocrat