Should Journalists Just Tell Us They’re Biased?

Robert Brooks Contributor
Should Journalists Just Tell Us They’re Biased?
Read Time: approx. 2:13

Cover: Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

In recent years, the term “mainstream media” has often been used as a disparaging label for outlets that ostensibly and understandable have a liberal bias. President Trump and his supporters regularly take the opportunity to criticize the “liberal leaning” #MSM for the aforementioned slant. In terms of national outlets, it appears to be CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, and The Washington Post against Fox News. For its part, Fox uses the slogan “fair and balanced” claiming to be the conservative counterweight to the left-leaning “lunatics” as the President tweeted last year. If you look up “journalism ethics and standards” on Wikipedia, the following passage can be found at the top of the page. “Journalism’s professional ‘code of ethics’ and the ‘canons of journalism’ share common elements including the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability, as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.” In short, the original objective of journalism was to be well… objective. Now, no matter whether you’re on Fox or CNN, every article reads like an opinion piece. This begs the question: should journalists just tell us which way they lean and broadcast their bias? That’s what we take a look at today.

On one hand: Van Gordon Sauter, the former president of CBS News during the 1980s, believes it is time for the mainstream media to candidly own their liberal bias. In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, Sauter highlights that “News organizations that claim to be neutral have long been creeping leftward, and their loathing of Mr. Trump has accelerated the pace. Late-night TV hosts have [also] broken the boundaries of what was considered acceptable political humor for networks.” Sauter explains that labeling inherent bias would allow journalists to feel more free to choose the stories they would prefer to report without having to operate under a “superficial” guise of neutrality. As an example, Sauter points to the media’s protective coverage of Joe Biden’s sexual assault allegations, while zealously going after allegations against conservatives like Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Evan Siegfried, at NBC News, adds that this style of reporting has created an environment where “66 percent of Americans believe the media has a hard time separating fact from opinion,” which makes it difficult for Americans to trust the news they receive. Therein lies the crux of the issue: trust. Sauter concludes that “America won’t reunite until far more people can look at a news story… and of all things, believe it.”

On the other hand, Sauter acknowledges that many mainstream outlets will be resistant to disclosing their bias, because it may hurt their bottom line. For example, if outlets pulled back on specific types of coverage, like anti-Trump stories, that could prove to be commercially harmful. He adds that any potential audience that could be gained by softening an editorial bias would likely be outweighed by the defections of an existing audience that does not approve of such a move. In a conversation with Tom Rosenstiel, Vox’s Sean Illing also illustrates the idea that Fox News has transformed into a propaganda machine for Trump. Rosenstiel writes that “partisan journalists are interested in getting people to consider ideas. Propagandists are interested in moving the public to a particular position to achieve a particular outcome.” Fox News, therefore, has fallen into the latter category. As such, some emphasize that it is essential to have a liberal voice to check the influence of the Trump administration and the media outlets that are loyal to him.

Flag This: Our first amendment virtually guarantees that there will never be such a thing as neutral reporting. Here’s why. Even if an artificial intelligence program wrote a news report, humans will still read or view it through a subjective lens. There’s no way around it. If you have a beating heart you have visceral emotions. If you have emotions you have opinions. Therefore some may read the robot’s report as “neutral” if they agree with the content. If you don’t, you may label it as biased. Now facts are a separate matter because 2 + 2 will always equal 5, but sometimes it appears the media on both sides has trouble with that basic math. So here’s the thought experiment we’ll leave you with. Imagine Tucker Carlson of Fox News or Jim Acosta of CNN was your math teacher. Would you rather them tell you they were bad at math before they tried to teach it to you? Or would you be okay with them insisting that their calculation is right when sometimes you know it’s wrong.