But first, a little about me
Posted at 12:37 PM on July 6, 2007 by Bill Wareham
William Powers over at National Journal is suggesting that journalists provide background information that would, I take it, allow their audiences to glean inherent biases. Among the things Powers would like to know:
Who are they? Where did they grow up? What did they study in school? Why did they become journalists? Did they ever work in politics or volunteer for a cause? If so, when and where? If the outlet's policies allow them to make political donations, list them.
Brian Montopoli at CBS News' Public Eye doesn't entirely disagree with the idea, but thinks such disclosure could go too far:
For one, you have to wonder where it stops: Should someone writing on pork production have to disclose if they were ever a vegetarian? Should someone writing about gay marriage have to reveal their sexuality to all interested parties? One could argue that those issues are more relevant, when it comes to these stories, than where someone grew up, after all. But are we really sure that we want to endorse the idea that choosing a career in journalism means forfeiting privacy rights? And do we really care if the beat writer for the local ballclub ran for the school board?
And then there's the fact that the information revealed will inevitably be used unfairly. Let's say, when a reporter was in college, he joined the Young Republicans. Or, in his 20s, gave money to the Sierra Club. Does that really mean that ten years later he can't cover politics or the environment fairly? Yet you can bet that the screamers on different sides of the aisle will cite these supposed biases to challenge every word the reporter types or utters. I don't think reporters should be contributing to political causes related to the issues they cover. But there is something McCarthyesque about the idea that everything a reporter has done over the course of his life should be fodder for discrediting his work.
A good discussion, I think. I'm not among those who would suggest journalists have no biases. Like all people, of course they have biases. Yet, I'm not sure Powers' questions would reveal a lot about individuals' biases.
I mean, I have no trouble telling you: I grew up in southwest Minneapolis. Graduated from Southwest High in 1978. Majored in political science at St. Olaf College. My political activity consists of pounding lawn signs for a Republican candidate (either Nixon or a local candidate, I don't remember) as a preteen (a buddy's dad volunteered us, I had no personal stake in that race) and attending a Republican caucus as a John Anderson supporter in 1980. No political donations (MPR, where I have worked since 1982, doesn't allow them). I became a journalist because, when I got the opportunity, I found I really enjoyed telling stories on the radio.
You see, I don't think there's enough there to determine much about my biases, political or otherwise. And I think the same would be true if you went around the roomful of journalists here and did the same exercise.
Which, again, isn't to say that journalists, here or anywhere, don't have biases. But I do believe it's possible to put those biases far enough to the side to tell stories in a credible way. Good journalists have an open-minded curiousity that is far stronger than political/ideological bias. What drives them is a desire to tell a compelling story that covers all angles and withstands criticism, not a desire to somehow persuade the masses to adopt a particular point-of-view.
I understand that we will always have critics ready to find evidence of bias in everything we do. At least now they can blame it on my upbringing in southwest Minneapolis.