“The vast majority of American voters believe media bias is alive and well – 83% of likely voters said the media is biased in one direction or another, while just 11% believe the media doesn’t take political sides.”
And no wonder. News programming today often makes little distinction between news reporting and commentary, and the journalist is often as important as the news itself.
But distinctions matter. Journalism can never be truly “unbiased.” By the time we read any news article or watch any news segment, even the most “objective” news has been run through a series of bias filters. Each news department selects which stories to cover and which reporters to cover it. Each reporter selects which aspects of a story to focus on and which details of all possible details to include in the story. And editors make selective changes to fit a variety of criteria.
But recognizing this inherent bias, doesn’t mean we should stop insisting on some objectivity. Journalists can still choose to report mainly on the who, what, when, where, and why, and refrain from subjective assessment. They can still do their best to be fair and cover both sides of an issue, reporting that some people disagree about reported facts, and quoting the subjective assessments of people on multiple sides of an issue. And news programs (and bloggers who report the news) can still make a clear distinction between news reports and commentary.
This distinction is an important one for me because it goes to the issue of trust. With the blurring of the distinction between reporting and commentary, to trust the news, we must place more trust in the news organization (with all its corporate influences), which can then lead to an abuse of that trust in the form of completely subjective reporting that serves only the bias. If we can’t trust the organizations, then we’re left only with individuals – whether reporters, commentators, or bloggers – and many of these have little credibility beyond zeal. Stephen Colbert’s incredible humor and influence come from playing off this so perfectly, and the fact that some people don’t recognize the Colbert irony is a testament to what they are not recognizing in actual news programming.
And it’s a good reminder for PR pros. While subjective assessment (“the leader in…”) certainly has its place, hype-free objective reporting encourages trust and ultimately coverage.
While I’d like to think the Zogby poll indicates healthy skepticism, I fear it indicates growing cynicism about an environment in which persuasiveness comes all too often from celebrity and the amount of noise one makes.