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Disclosure: The New Objectivity in Journalism

September 28, 2011

Yesterday evening, a few of my CUNY journalism school classmates and I attended a lecture by Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC‘s excellent media-analysis program, On The Media. Her new book, The Influencing Machine is an analysis of journalism in the modern age, told in graphic novel format. Unsurprisingly, she spent most of her talk discussing bias in the media, and how to counterbalance that with disclosure.

Gladstone enumerated some of the biases that are baked into the media:

  • currency bias: The news has to be “new”, by definition. Stories in the media are typically about current events or related to them somehow. (Coming directly from my Craft I class, I was amused to hear this, because our professors hammer into us the need to answer the “why now?” question in stories.)
  • bad news bias: Emphasizing bad news is good for business.
  • status quo bias: Humans tend to resist change, and the media tends to ignore anything that suggests radical change.
  • access bias: Especially a problem in Washington, D.C. Example: “A senior administration official said” protects the reporter and the source, not the reader.
  • visual bias: Something visual is more likely to be noticed. Example: Iraqi prisoner torture was happening months, even years before the photographs at Abu Ghraib were released, but the story didn’t get play until the disturbing images were available.
  • narrative bias: An obsession with beginning-middle-end storytelling. Gladstone criticized journalists who tack an artificial ending onto pieces to make them “fit” a story arc.
  • character bias: Once you’ve set up a character, it’s very hard to change them. Gladstone gave us several examples, one of which was the “John Kerry, the effete Francophile” image. Reporters also get very mad when characters change their positions or step outside the box that’s already been established, e.g. John McCain sparring with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson.
  • fairness bias: Giving both sides equal time, even when both sides aren’t equal. Jay Rosen has been on a tear about this recently with NPR; Gladstone characterizes it as “a failure of nerve.” Examples: global warming, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Gladstone said, “we can evaluate both sides, but if their position isn’t supported, you don’t have to give them equal time that distorts reality.”

The check against these biases, she said, is disclosure: showing the public the process by which you did your reporting and came to your conclusions, so that they could, if they wanted to, retrace your steps. She doesn’t believe in a journalistic Mount Olympus anymore, saying we’ve moved beyond Walter Kronkite’s legendary sign-off phrase (“and that’s the way it is”) to a digital world where journalists are no longer the arbiter of relevancy.

She says she wouldn’t go as far as Jeff Jarvis, revealing everything under the sun including intimate details of his prostate cancer, but overall she thinks engaging the audience in the reporting and writing process is beneficial to everyone.