Fixing media problems

Journalist 01For the second week in a row, the Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has devoted her column to the problem of media bias. I always get a kick out of how the media treats problems in the media industry relative to problems in other industries. All of that investigative journalism, take-no-prisoners attitude and hard-hitting reporting suddenly disappears and we get limp and timid copy.

Still, kudos to Howell for taking on the topic. When polls show that people perceived media bias in favor of Barack Obama at record levels (70 percent thought the media was trying to help Obama compared to 9 percent who thought the same of John McCain, according to a Pew survey), you know you’ve got a problem. Another poll showed that a majority of voters felt that media bias was a bigger problem in elections than campaign cash. And yet how many news stories and pieces of analysis have we seen for the latter topic compared to the former? In an environment where subscriptions are plummeting and the industry is imploding, widespread distrust in the media is truly scary.

Speaking of timid handling of media bias problems, the Howell column is titled “Remedying the Bias Perception.” See, bias isn’t the problem, it’s perceptions of bias! The column is devoted in its entirety to political coverage, but I think there are some lessons on the religion beat as well.

Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.

Journalists bristle at the thought of their coverage being viewed as unfair or unbalanced; they believe that their decisions are journalistically reasonable and that their politics do not affect how they cover and display stories.

Tom Rosenstiel, a former political reporter who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, “The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

I love how stories dealing with media bias always paint journalists as the good guys. Imagine a story about some major problem at Enron or in the Bush Administration where it was just asserted that the hearts and motivations of the players were good . . . but some external factor was to blame for the malaise. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the media putting the best construction on the actions of people in the media industry — I just deplore the double standard. Howie Kurtz wrote his Monday column about the “giddy sense of boosterism” the mainstream media have displayed since Obama’s election. But then he downplays it and says it won’t really be a problem. But why should we trust the media to tell us that their bias isn’t a problem? Aren’t they somewhat compromised?

Anyway, the solution offered in Howell’s column is good. We’ve known for decades now that the tilt in journalism is out of control. Something should be done. Here’s another piece of advice:

Rosenstiel said, “There should be more intellectual diversity among journalists. More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism. We need to be more vigilant and conscious in looking for bias. Our aims are pure, but our execution sometimes is not. Staff members should feel in their bones that unfairness will never be tolerated.”

The best way to root out bias is a balanced newsroom. It’s just difficult, though certainly not impossible, for liberals to sense bias against conservatives in the same way that it’s difficult for conservatives to sense bias against liberals. This is human nature.

Having been in a variety of newsrooms, I have one suggestion for overcoming the problem. Editors should stop requiring undergraduate and graduate journalism degrees. This profession is not rocket science. A high school diploma probably isn’t necessary. Just the ability to write, a healthy curiosity and a drive to break news.

One of the newsrooms I worked in was trying to hire more non-white employees. And yet they required a master’s degree in journalism or equivalent. Perhaps I’m biased since I got neither an undergraduate nor graduate degree in journalism, but I thought this silly requirement might have something to do with the fact that everyone in the newsroom looked the same, acted the same, lived and came from the same general socio-economic background and, not coincidentally, believed the same things. Every beat — and not just religion — would benefit from breaking open this system a bit more. Alternatively, maybe the media industry as we know it is imploding and without a bailout will die a certain death. Maybe greater bias is their plan for the future. Will that work?

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  • Harris

    It seems difficult to see how removing credentialing returns the newsroom to a balance. If anything, it makes the hiring decision more subjective. Besides, if there is already a surplus of journalists, how then does the candidate stand out?

    In economic terms, credentialing is an answer to the queuing problem.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.

    Somebody alert Michael that his centrist, mainstream paper ain’t so centrist and mainstream.

  • Tim J.

    Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world.

    I like that he starts off by essentially saying, “it’s no wonder we have a lot of liberals: journalists are awesome, and liberals are also awesome.” And this is a column that’s aware of the problem.

  • tmatt


    I think that Michael has, alas, left the building.

  • Dave

    If the profession really thinks that lack of conservatives is a problem in the newsroom, it should resort to affirmative action hiring. There isn’t any constitutional problem that I’m aware of in making diversity in opinion an employment standard.

    Of course, this assumes that newsrooms will be hiring in the future. Awareness of the problem may have come too late for a solution.

  • Stoo

    “We like to change the world” is a bit self-congratulatory. But it is an interesting question; is there something about journalism that’s intrinsically more appealing to those of a liberal mindset?

  • Mattk

    “Journalism naturally draws liberals”

    I’ve always thought this was a strange fact. It seems to me, conservatives, who, generally, believe that words are effectual tools of communication, and who have a deep appreciation of history should be more attracted to the journalism trade than should liberals, who lean toward those schools of philosophy that don’t believe communication is possible or that anything is knowable. Yet the reverse is, obviously, true. Why is this?

  • Tim J.

    My own biased view is that conservatives are simply more likely to recognize their views as being opinions rather than moderate, settled facts. So, instead of calling what they do “journalism,” they go for “commentary” and think-tanks. To get a conservative perspective, you listen to a self-proclaimed conservative pundit. To get a liberal perspective, you probably don’t have to do more than listen to somebody who claims to be an unbiased journalist.

    Of course, this could be just a side-effect of having a liberal-dominated MSM. Conservatives can’t escape it, so they can’t help but be aware of the other side’s views. Liberals have a much easier time protecting themselves from encountering a conservative viewpoint. Thus, the conservative knows that his views are conservative; the liberal hears mostly views that align with his own, and assumes that he must be a moderate.

  • Jerry

    liberals, who lean toward those schools of philosophy that don’t believe communication is possible or that anything is knowable.

    That is, of course, your opinion. From the other side of the fence, liberals see themselves as very interested in communicating the truth and being very careful about logical fallacies (at least in theory) and are very big on the knowable. There was much pride on the left when the left was being attacked as being “fact based” versus “faith based” not so long ago.

    Which leads to the obvious question about who would referee the semantic fights as well as the fights about what each side knows to be true when in fact it is too often only unsubstantiated opinion.

  • Jay Steele

    Have you ever heard of the Washington Times? The Wall Street Journal? So the New York Times or Washington Post has a liberal bias? We have Fox News to offer a “fair and balanced” alternative. Let the free market decide. I see nothing wrong with having liberal media and conservative media. Everyone knows how the different media are biased; everyone can decide where to get their news.

    I especially liked the suggestion that newspapers stop requiring journalism degrees. Let’s run that by the editors at the Wall Street Journal.

  • Perpetua

    I think Molly is right about the credentialing. The Journalism Departments are so left wing that only liberals can stand to go through the program. The end result is a group of graduates who are unable to see their own biases.

  • Elaine T

    Doesn’t anyone else see the problem with journalists wanting to change the world? That’s not what I want the news for. The news should be about what is happening or has happened. Those five Ws: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

    Although as far as I’m concerned, they could improve their product immensely by simply dropping the ‘Why” out of news articles for a few years. Just tell us the facts, leave the opinion to the editorial pages. Then they might actually have room for more stories that aren’t getting covered right now, and weren’t during the election period when they might really have changed the world.

  • Susan

    Liberals see little or no bias because most journalists are liberal and there is a match in terms of world view. Many liberals are young and not inclined to use traditional news sources (if they use any at all.) From a conservative point of view, bias and lack of balance has been a growing issue for decades. (Same issue for educational institutions, by the way.) Conservatives are creating new sources for themselves as they opt out of traditional sources.

    Unfortunately for the newspapers and print media, technology was already undermining their economic model. Bias simply moved the natural progression along faster. The reputation of print journalism is irretrievably from the point of view of a significant portion of the population. The Presidential election just pushed it over the cliff in terms of speed to the bottom (to complete irrelevancy). I say this sadly because my mother was an investigative journalist, and I firmly believe that good journalism is an essential element of “democracy”.

    The question now is what will take it’s place? On-line blogs often rely on traditional media for news stories. Who will have the resources (and even the “authority”) to conduct investigative research into issues to which the public has a right and a need to know?

    I have a front line seat to observe information retrieval practices by the American public; I have been a librarian for many years in large to mid-sized cities on the west coast. I hear the questions and the comments daily from the public. It is an interesting time.

  • Jerry

    Liberals see little or no bias

    It’s just the opposite. Liberals see a great deal of bias because news organizations, especially TV, are owned by large corporations which want to see their viewpoints reflected in stories as well as guests.

    One example where the left finds media bias toward the right is:

    Republicans and conservatives outnumber Democrats and progressives. More conservative journalists appear than progressive journalists. Panels are more likely to be imbalanced toward the right than toward the left. Republicans and conservatives are given more solo interviews. In short, the title we gave to our original study — “If It’s Sunday, It’s Conservative” — remains true.

    I could find probably another 100 with 15 minutes work and the bias on talk radio is very strongly to the right. I’m not saying that there is not an overall liberal bias, at least in print media, but isn’t it time to stop overgeneralizing about what liberals or conservatives do or don’t believe? From my vantage point, both think the media is biased in the other direction. Maybe it’s time to understand how both sides can see things so differently and try to work out ways of dealing with what the situation really is.

    I also think Mollie makes a good point. I dislike absolute degree requirements in many fields, journalism could be one exmaple. There should always be an “degree or equivalent experience”. There’s nothing wrong with upholding a professional standard but allowing for multiple ways of satisfying that standard of excellence.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Mollie is on the mark: The NEWS media was much better off when it was working stiffs (“those ink-stained wretches”) who were the newsmen and whose degree in journalism was from the school of hard knocks as they worked their way up from “copy boy.”
    College and university degrees in journalism–as in so many other fields–depend far more on bootlicking and kowtowing to professors than what used to be the criteria when working one’s way up the ladder where hard work and on-the-job competence were usually the major standard.
    As for getting good marks in college (to get that degree), I once had a course with a professor who told me to stop thinking independently for my own good. Figure out how the professor thinks and ooze agreement in my papers and class comments or questions. He let me in on what the ladder of degrees (B.S., M.S. and phd.) REALLY means in many fields: Bullsh-t, more sh-t, and piling it higher and deeper. Everything I have heard and seen since from students with incomprehensibly great marks and students with bafflingly low marks as well as from observing other profs confirms the “lowdown” I got from an honest academic.

  • MarkAA

    The term “newsroom” soon will no longer be useful. “Newsrooms” as they’ve been known for decades are actively being dismantled right now as papers across the country are being cut by half or 75% or more, and the term “newsroom” will be a word describing a thing that no longer exists. The journalistic spaces of the future will typically be 3 or 4 reporters (or less) and an editor posting stories to a Website. Much or most of the content might come from stringers and free-lancers, with the editor spending perhaps the bulk of his/her time riding herd on the free-lance assignments.

    All this will be in an office surrounded by ad sales people and tech folks keeping the servers running. The problem of rooms full of liberal journalists feeding each other liberal views in an insulated tank won’t be around too much longer.

  • Herb Brasher

    Intrigued by this piece, I put some of Mollie’s analysis as a question to a journalist whom I very much respect. His answer is found here. To quote part of it, he agreed with Mollie on the journalistic background thing, but added this:

    Secondly, since journalists are not supposed to HAVE opinions, they don’t really closely examine the attitudes they DO have. This means they don’t develop past those vaguely liberal notions they sort of picked up by osmosis in school. Since they don’t EXPRESS opinions, their opinions don’t get challenged, so they remain in their original fuzzy shape.

    I didn’t fully develop that theory until I had been in editorial for awhile, and happened to realize the extent to which I had to think a lot harder about things when I was going to arrive at conclusions and PUBLISH those conclusions for the whole world to challenge. I had thought I was a thoughtful guy as a news man, but on issue after issue I realized I had been sort of shallow or reflexive. It’s not so much that I changed my mind on issues, as I went deeper, and on many issues figured out what I actually THOUGHT for the first time.

  • tioedong

    their “Faith” page is one of the worst cases of biases that I have seen…

    maybe someone should try getting a more balanced page there…believing Catholics are especially ignored.

  • Tim J.

    Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world.

    One more complaint about this quote. Isn’t the fact that journalists are trying to change the world a big part of the problem? I want my journalists to report the world. We have a different word for people who want to change it: they’re called “activists.”