Everyone has biases–it’s how you deal with them that counts

A few months back a book called Overcoming Bias came across my desk. It’s described as a journalist’s ovefcomingbiasguide to culture and context.

Admittedly, I was a bit put off by the title; I don’t think overcoming a bias that may have been festering for years can be overcome in the time it takes to cover most stories.

The real strategy is to acknowledge your bias and do your utmost to ensure it doesn’t impact your work. As it turns out, that’s exactly what the book talks about. I loved it–and the accompanying website.

The author, American J-Prof Sue Ellen Christian, wrote the book after becoming alarmed over her students’ inability to separate beliefs from facts–I stole that line from the J-Source article I just posted that stemmed from my interview with Christian. You can hear an excerpt of our conversation here.

For that article, I also interviewed via email three Canadian reporters. In light of calls for journalists to be more open about their own perspectives, I asked “What is your reaction to the idea that reporters should share their personal bias in order to achieve balance in a story?”

I didn’t have room for their responses to that question in my J-source piece, but thought they’d be great fodder for discussion. Here are their answers:

“Not realistic/ridiculous/unwieldy.  No one cares what I think/believe, nor should they, unless it truly impacts the way I’m covering news.  How could I declare a personal bias…and just one?…and then proceed to offer a news story….it’s coloured the whole story, even if the treatment of the story is fair and accurate.” Karen Owen, CTV Calgary

“I think that the personal bias in a typical reporter piece should not be reflected, unless it adds to the story in some meaningful way. I think there is room for different kinds of journalism in which the reporter’s opinion becomes part of the story.  I think the opinion pieces, columns, and editorials should complement the traditional news story.  I want the facts, but I also enjoy getting different analysis on the facts.” Sneha Kulkarni, SUN News Network, Toronto

“There is a place for that type of journalism. But not in hard-hitting, local news. Balance is always possible without diluting the story with your own opinion. The reporter’s reaction would be a third side to the story. A story needs only two sides.” David Squires, NTV, St. John’s

Does it matter, for example, that I know all three sources I quoted above? Did it impact my choice of quotes, or the balance of facts? Those are questions I asked myself before including them in my piece. As someone who’s been working in journalism for two decades, I’m confident that interviewing people I have a personal connection to will not, necessarily, impact my story. And as someone who’s worked in journalism for over two decades I’m cognizant of how important it is that I ask myself those questions and really think about my answers.

Although traditionally something to avoid, biased reporting is making a lot of people a lot of money in our industry, with some networks catering to ideology over information sharing. But that doesn’t mean the majority of journalists aren’t doing their best to uphold ethical standards that ensure the public is getting the facts from an objective standpoint. Not to mention ordinary citizens who are adding their voices to the fray.

Christian’s book provides some good strategies for both students and professionals to ensure journalists achieve the prime directive of balanced reporting. And perhaps if we do what she suggests, and spend more time reflecting on how we form our views and shape our stories, it will be easier for the audience to distinguish a good story from a well voiced opinion.

P.S. If you listened to the interview, sorry for the hissing–that’s my how clean audio loaded on to podbean  –if you know why, please share 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Everyone has biases–it’s how you deal with them that counts

  1. Great article. I totally agree. But it seems like the more balanced and free of personal opinion the news is, the less popular it is. Especially when you need to compete with news organizations that blur the line between story and editorial. I know fact laden stories are better than opinions but its hard make numbers and statistics interesting compared to an opinion or a rant. Look at Sun Media. Talk radio, hard-hitting news, editorial and selling you medication during the commercial break, all from the same Charles Adler. Now that’s trust.

  2. Really great article. I read this book in my cross-cultural journalism class in my sophomore year of college. I totally agree. The book was more about acknowledging that you have bias and working to shift them away from your work rather than trying to get rid of them.

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