Bias in Journalism?

This was the banner for the online community magazine where I was Managing Editor for many years. The man who started the publication wanted to make sure that the news for our small town was reported fairly and without bias, which, unfortunately isn’t the case for so many news outlets.

Over the past 20 or 30 years it has become increasingly clear that journalism is not the same journalism I learned and practiced for many years before moving on to my stint at, and then on to writing fiction, which I clearly indicate at all times is pure fiction.

When I started out writing for print newspapers and magazines in the late 70s and early 80s, the lines between reporting the facts and putting forth personal opinions was very clear. We were not to insert ourselves, or any political, social or religious agenda we might support, into a news story. In stories about public figures, we were not to allow them to tell us how to present a story or allow their bias to direct our reporting. If they were not comfortable with that arrangement, they could decline the interview.

Opinions belonged on the editorial page. Period.

Those definitive lines between straight news stories and op-ed pieces assured our readers that we were giving them unbiased facts, upon which they could base their own opinions. And for a long time that was true in broadcast journalism.

Not so much anymore.

As more and more information has been released this week about Sinclair Broadcasting Group and the “must runs” segment that ran on all it’s affiliates last  month, I have become increasingly dismayed. In case you are not aware of what happened. Timothy Burke, the video director at Deadspin, put together a video of many of the anchors of local television stations reading the exact same words of a “must run” that had come from Sinclair headquarters.

The gist of that message was that there are too many instances of “fake news” in media outlets, and these stations were to assure viewers that it was not the case of their reporting.  Just one part of the report, all of which can be read in total in an article by Stephen Cohen in SeattlePI  was this:

(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

Responses to the outcry over the “must-read” by Sinclair include statements by David D. Smith, Chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting group who was interviewed in a series of e-mail exchanges with Sydney Ember for this article in The New York Times

Sydney wrote: “Opponents of the deal have cited the dangers of media consolidation, as well as Sinclair’s willingness to use must-runs to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda.

“In subsequent emails on Tuesday, Mr. Smith, said that the networks ‘do exactly the same promotional things that we do” and that such segments were ‘standard practice in the industry.’

“Asked about the widespread criticism prompted by the Deadspin compilation, Mr. Smith expressed disbelief.

“‘You can’t be serious!’ he wrote. ‘Do you understand that as a practical matter every word that comes out of the mouths of network news people is scripted and approved by someone?””

While it is true that news stories are scripted and approved by someone, and have been for decades. The scripting was done by the reporters and staff writers and the approval was by the news directors whose job was to make sure the facts were true and there was nothing liable in the content. Content which had to be verified by at least two sources, if not more.

One element of this new approach that Sinclair, and other news organizations, is taking that alarms me the most, is how the news is being used to push a narrow point of view on people who may not take the time, or effort, to read or view or listen outside of the local news. So everything they hear on the nightly news as they sit in their living rooms after dinner, is gospel to them.

That point is made quite well in this quote from The Los Angeles Times in a story by Stephen Battaglio and Matt Pearce.

“Those of us who have followed the news business have been concerned for a long time about Sinclair injecting a political point of view into local news, especially coming from a central place,” said Andrew Heyward, a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab. “Surveys show local news is not only the most watched by a plurality of Americans, but also the most trusted. This would be polluting the last clear non-polarizing news pool in America.”

For more in-depth look at the story and how it affects the small TV stations across America, you can listen to an interview with a former news director at a local TV station in Iowa. Aaron Weiss that aired on The Daily with Michael Barbaro this morning.

Sinclair is now poised to buy many more TV stations, which will bring it’s broadcasting policies and messages into seven out of every ten homes in the nation.

Are the practices of modern journalism alarming to you? Where do you go to find your news? Since I stopped watching television almost two years ago now, I don’t miss local network news. I listen to podcasts and read news outlets online.

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