Monday, March 21, 2011

Objectivity .NE. Centrism

The latest On the Media had a discussion about whether NPR is biased. While it was acknowledged that media fragmentation has led to a lack of consensus about what constitutes the "center," no one questioned that said "center" is a relevant reference point for defining bias. I made the following comment (which had to be edited slightly before submission because of a character limit):

The fundamental flaw in this discussion is the unexamined assumption expressed by the phrase, "journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides." This assumes 1) that there are only two sides to an issue, and 2) that somehow the "center," whatever that means, is more likely to be right than any other position.

One sees how ridiculous these assumptions are if we do a historical thought experiment. At one time, the "center" was undecided on whether slavery was right or wrong. Does that mean a journalist who acted on the usual assumptions of today would have been biased in doing totally antislavery reporting, but unbiased by giving the proslavery position equal time? How can what was biased then be unbiased now, and vice versa? Plainly such an approach is not unbiased at all, but is instead biased against change. The study you discussed, which found the Inquirer's "pro-peace" bias on Palestine/Israel to effectively favor locking in the status quo, is just one example of this.

Also, on any particular question, one side favors a change from the status quo while the other wants to preserve it. So you can give equal time to both sides on various issues, but still skew your coverage simply by your decisions about what issues to cover.

Often what we would now view as the right position would have been considered totally fringe at one time. The "doughnut" approach is fundamentally at odds with freedom of thought because it rules out positions which may in fact be correct, simply because they are presently unpopular. To be truly objective (to the extent humanly possible), journalists must stop worrying about what is or is not the "center" and simply try to report all the relevant facts that come to light. As in science, the corrective to individual biases will be found not in a cult of "objectivity" that really masks a centrist bias but, rather, in the interplay of the different perspectives of multiple journalists, each helping to check and correct the bias of others.