Fixing media problems

Journalist 01For the second week in a row, the Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has devoted her column to the problem of media bias. I always get a kick out of how the media treats problems in the media industry relative to problems in other industries. All of that investigative journalism, take-no-prisoners attitude and hard-hitting reporting suddenly disappears and we get limp and timid copy. Still, kudos to Howell for taking on the topic. When polls show that people perceived media bias in favor of Barack Obama at record levels (70 percent thought the media was trying to help Obama compared to 9 percent who thought the same of John McCain, according to a Pew survey), you know you've got a problem. Another poll showed that a majority of voters felt that media bias was a bigger problem in elections than campaign cash. And yet how many news stories and pieces of analysis have we seen for the latter topic compared to the former? In an environment where subscriptions are plummeting and the industry is imploding, widespread distrust in the media is truly scary.

Speaking of timid handling of media bias problems, the Howell column is titled "Remedying the Bias Perception." See, bias isn't the problem, it's perceptions of bias! The column is devoted in its entirety to political coverage, but I think there are some lessons on the religion beat as well.

Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I'll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don't even want to be quoted by name in a memo.

Journalists bristle at the thought of their coverage being viewed as unfair or unbalanced; they believe that their decisions are journalistically reasonable and that their politics do not affect how they cover and display stories.

Tom Rosenstiel, a former political reporter who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, "The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It's not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It's inconceivable that that is irrelevant."

I love how stories dealing with media bias always paint journalists as the good guys. Imagine a story about some major problem at Enron or in the Bush Administration where it was just asserted that the hearts and motivations of the players were good . . . but some external factor was to blame for the malaise. It's not that I necessarily disagree with the media putting the best construction on the actions of people in the media industry -- I just deplore the double standard. Howie Kurtz wrote his Monday column about the "giddy sense of boosterism" the mainstream media have displayed since Obama's election. But then he downplays it and says it won't really be a problem. But why should we trust the media to tell us that their bias isn't a problem? Aren't they somewhat compromised?

Anyway, the solution offered in Howell's column is good. We've known for decades now that the tilt in journalism is out of control. Something should be done. Here's another piece of advice:

Rosenstiel said, "There should be more intellectual diversity among journalists. More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism. We need to be more vigilant and conscious in looking for bias. Our aims are pure, but our execution sometimes is not. Staff members should feel in their bones that unfairness will never be tolerated."

The best way to root out bias is a balanced newsroom. It's just difficult, though certainly not impossible, for liberals to sense bias against conservatives in the same way that it's difficult for conservatives to sense bias against liberals. This is human nature.

Having been in a variety of newsrooms, I have one suggestion for overcoming the problem. Editors should stop requiring undergraduate and graduate journalism degrees. This profession is not rocket science. A high school diploma probably isn't necessary. Just the ability to write, a healthy curiosity and a drive to break news.

One of the newsrooms I worked in was trying to hire more non-white employees. And yet they required a master's degree in journalism or equivalent. Perhaps I'm biased since I got neither an undergraduate nor graduate degree in journalism, but I thought this silly requirement might have something to do with the fact that everyone in the newsroom looked the same, acted the same, lived and came from the same general socio-economic background and, not coincidentally, believed the same things. Every beat -- and not just religion -- would benefit from breaking open this system a bit more. Alternatively, maybe the media industry as we know it is imploding and without a bailout will die a certain death. Maybe greater bias is their plan for the future. Will that work?

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