Is it necessary for journalists to reveal their personal biases?

Media | Building/Consensus
Is it necessary for journalists to reveal their personal biases? This comes from the folk bloggers such as Dave Winer, and, to the best of my knowledge, pushed for by folk-blogging supporters like NYU’s Jay Rosen— that journalists are just like normal people and probably have opinions about things they right about, and thus they ought to be as transparent as a blogger. I’m very skeptical about that approach.

Why do so many people want to declare objectivity dead? Conservatives keep repeating that the media is full of liberal reporters. Are they in favor want affirmative action to get right-leaning people in the newsroom? Liberals, on the assumption that the corporatization of media has brought a pro-business outlook to the editorial room, wish that enabling reporters to admit their biases would let them take off the “kid gloves.” But this would exacerbate the split even more, and you’d have very little news that a majority of the population would agree on.

And it’s not like we’re lacking partisan news coverage today.


Let’s consider the simple case of asking a publication to disclaim who their writers, editors, fact-checkers voted for– as Slate did in 2000 and 2004. Regular readers like myself were not surprised that many voted Democratic. There were a few exceptions. But I really don’t remember who they are. And I don’t care. I’m not going to even bother finding the link. It’s not like it’s going to affect my reading of them.

Slate did this right before the election; those votes have no meaning today. It would seem like the demanders of full transparency would want to see a bias indicator all the time. But consider also the bias of “priming,” which I learned about today in David Brooks’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink:

One group of African-Americans was asked to take a test without identifying their race on the pretest questionnaire. Another group was asked their race and “that simple act,” Gladwell writes, “was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African-Americans and academic achievement.” The African-Americans who identified their race did much worse than the people who didn’t. The number of questions they got right was cut in half.

This problem is compounded when someone’s looking over your shoulder– the reading public. A reporter would have more trouble from people of his own ideology demanding to know why he isn’t partisan enough to his own rating.


First of all, it’s much more effective to rate individual pieces of content and then aggregate up to a rating for the journalist. That’s what the independent analysts at LyingInPonds do– they track the positive and negative partisan associations of the nationally syndicated columnists.

The trouble with their approach is that they focus only on political biases. This yields an incomplete, and polarizing view of writers. We need to expand our understanding to include more substantive components of the content. Here are many sorts of questions: is it viable? are the facts valid? is the argument cohesive? (I have catalogued these responses as viewpoints.)


Why bother demanding that a reporter identify his biases, when it can be done by a much more reliable source– that same reading public? The suggestions by James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds and Christian Crumlish’s The Power of Many is that you get a much more accurate analysis from the collective input of many readers.

Certainly one of the pitfalls with the wisdom of the crowd is which crowd it is– you can marshal enough forces to “stuff the ballotbox.” But this can be solved by allowing people to choose their own crowd to trust. They can trust a group which is liberal, conservative, or a mix. They can choose media professionals, college graduates, people in their state.

The media companies may see it in their interest to fund an auditing service which can ensure a representative sample of their target audience. Currently newspaper editors (and elected officials) have to process immense amounts of mail, requiring a correspondence staff to enter into a categorized database (if at all). Whether they “downsample” it in order to adjust for demographics is anyone’s guess, though highly unlikely. It would almost be like transitioning to a world of customer self-service: the news output has “bugs,” and alert users can submit those bugs and classify them using agreed-upon taxonomy.

The best news for readers is that a publication need not have to upgrade their publishing software just yet. As long as each article has a unique URL, it can be referenced in an external database. The proposed Hearsay Network is one such system.