Friday, October 21, 2016

Biased reporting is real...even in unbiased reporters

A class called Historiography made my head spin. First of all, it was the study of historic thought, which is waaaay more interesting than it sounds. What I wasn't ready for was the challenge it would present to the way I conducted business for the first 25 years of my career as a journalist.

We were talking about bias, and the more I insisted there are people who can truly be unbiased (like myself, cough-cough), the harder the realization it me:


Let me explain.

When a writer approaches news writing from the community watchdog perspective, he presents only facts to the reader. This allows readers to make up their own minds about how they feel about people and issues. At first, it's a challenge to omit your opinions, but then it becomes such second nature that it's difficult to find your own opinion deep down inside. This is where I was. I'd omitted my own opinion for so long, that I didn't have one.

Or so I thought.

On that fateful night when I was sitting in the seminar class with my instructor and two other graduate students, our professor helped me realize that there is bias in unbiased reporting. It all stems from the inverted pyramid.

If you haven't heard of the inverted pyramid writing style and you plan to write about government, you'd better learn it. Inverted pyramid, especially in the cases of board meetings and court hearings, is the industry standard. The inverted pyramid represents how a news story should move from the most important facts in the first paragraph down to the least important facts at the end of the story. This serves three purposes:

  1. Readers can get a quick summary of the important items without having to read the whole story.
  2. Important facts in the lead paragraph may just cause someone to buy a paper to read all the details.
  3. If a story has to be cut for space, the end can be chopped off without fear of omitting something super important.
That word kept cropping up -- important.

Who decides what's important at the meeting or in the courtroom?
You do.
Who decides which words to use to craft an interesting lead paragraph/
You do.
Who decides which least important facts get stuck at the end of the story?
You do.

So there it is -- your personal opinion inserted into your news story.

With the right frame of mind, a reporter can know his community, though, and begin to understand what is important to the residents. Understanding social mores is key for an adept reporter. Keep your stories as unbiased as possible by writing each one with an open mind. Leave out words that show opinions, or editorialize. That's another task that's difficult for beginning writers. For example:

DON'T SAY: The mayor addressed two important issues at the city council meeting.
DO SAY: The mayor addressed five issues at the city council meeting, but spent the majority of the meeting talking about two -- taxes and street repair.

DON'T SAY: The judge, tired from the 12-hour testimony, called for a recess.
DO SAY: After 12 hours of testimony, the judge called for a recess.

(The exception to this rule is when you are writing an opinion piece or perhaps a feature article about a news event.)

Even though I still get this gut-wrenching pain in the pit of my soul when I say that even good news reporting contains bias, I know it's true. That doesn't mean, however, that reporters should throw in the towel. Readers are still counting on them to offer up facts and details. With the knowledge that bias is inserted into each and every news story, reporters need to remember to keep the needs of the community in mind at all times so their writing will remain credible and relevant.

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