Considering Bias

Bias — choosing sidesin how something is reported — can be overt or subtle. More often, theappearance of bias is the issue. To most people, it’s a distinction without adifference.

Bias — choosing sides in how something is reported — can be overt or subtle. 

More often, the appearance of bias is the issue. To most people, it’s a distinction without a difference.

Think of Fox News. 

When viewers agree with Fox reporters, anchors or talking heads, you rarely hear them complain of “bias.” More often, Fox audiences call it “real objectivity” or their alternative to “liberal MSM” (MainStreamMedia).

When one-sided presentations offend Fox-haters who inexplicably are watching, Fox confirms dearly held views of pervasive rightwing bias. 

Knowingly reporting false information or deliberately misleading viewers, listeners or readers is a different issue. That’s dishonest irrespective of editors’ motives and it’s not what I’m talking about here. 

But there are legitimate ways for the news media to express opinions. 

One, of course, is to identify the commentary as opinion. For years, Jerry Springer ended late newscasts on WLWT with an editorial on a current news subject. It was labeled opinion. There was no subterfuge. At different times, WXIX had a manager present a short editorial. Again, it was labeled clearly as opinion. 

Those were general exceptions in local broadcasting.

Print has a venerable tradition of opining on issues of the day. We’ve always had publications whose sole purpose is propagation of political, economic or religious beliefs. At their best, verifiable information supports arguments.

Another long tradition involves newspaper opinion pages. Their opinions can be one-sided, unreasoned or irrational. After all, there is no such thing as a “false” opinion.  

Staff editorial writers applied their expertise to policies the management wanted to promote or defeat. 

For decades, The Cincinnati Enquirer editorial writers tended to embrace conservative social, economic and political views. Staff-written editorials are less predictable today, and a relatively recent change is to let readers fill the renamed opinion page.

Some outside contributions are thoughtful; some are passionate beyond their facts; some are plainly idiotic. That’s OK. Today’s tiny editorial page staff can’t produce high-quality work daily with all of the reporting required for facts to support views they are paid to express. 

I’m no fan of opinion pages, or, as they used to be called, editorial pages. Journalism research suggests that unsigned editorials — those speaking for the paper’s owners and/or management — rarely persuade; they confirm views that readers bring to them.

I’ve written daily editorials elsewhere. I don’t know if I persuaded anyone of anything. 

I’ve worked for papers whose editorials I rarely read. That includes The Enquirer. I didn’t care. My concern was the news columns. 

When a reader would ask, “How do you get away with that stuff,” it usually meant they’d read an editorial hostile to something I wrote about.

My answer? I’ve had stories killed, but I never thought editors acted in response to The Enquirer editorial page policies. 

Another place for opinions is the op-ed page where non-staff columnists and contributors express their opinions. These don’t have to be balanced, left and right, liberal and conservative.

There also are ways that a paper visually presents subjects that reveal where it stands. This isn’t new, and it need not reflect corrosive bias.

Emphases include the frequency with which a story is covered. A local example would be continuing The Enquirer coverage of indecision on a new I-75 bridge over the Ohio River. It’s a way of saying, “This is too important to ignore.” 

Tone also suggests where The Enquirer stands in otherwise balanced, accurate stories. LGBT issues have become a focus of continuing, sympathetic coverage. So have the dire straits of local children: lethal parents, diminished expectations at every turn, crappy and ever-changing housing, hunger, poor medical care, obesity, etc. 

Frequent stories about new bars and restaurants cater to young adults. Again, this emphasis on positive business coverage is not new. Neither is deferential coverage of local financial/business interests. 

Placement also sends a message. Page 1 says editors think it’s a big deal. That’s where the newest Bengals savior usually makes his debut. It’s also where coverage of child poverty stories appear. 

Other elements include the size of photos and graphics and whether they are in black and white or color, but if it’s important, it’s probably where the photo or graphics can be in color. 

Space devoted to text is another indicator of a story’s importance. Sometimes the reason is obvious — a recent story about witness fears in Hamilton County trials couldn’t be handled in 10 paragraphs, and editors gave it the space it deserved. 

Events — train wrecks, plane crashes, earthquakes and floods — can command Page 1, especially with competing media to whom audiences can turn. That doesn’t mean The Enquirer or any other paper embraces anything but their newsworthiness.

Placement, frequency and tone all evolved in the fiasco of Mahogany’s, a failed soul-food restaurant on the Banks. As details poured out and finger pointing began, content shifted from boosterism to why this failed project faced so little skepticism and why taxpayers’ money vanished down a dark hole.   

Facts eventually supported opinions: Cincinnati waived due diligence because it wanted a female-owned and minority establishment on The Banks; Mahogany’s owner Liz Rogers was a two-fer.

This evolved into well-displayed stories on Cincinnati’s inept giveaways of taxpayer money to unlikely enterprises. The deeper reporters dug, the more likely their findings were to appear on Page 1. It was a way for The Enquirer to say, “This is a big deal.” 

Contact BEN L. KAUFMAN : [email protected]

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