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Is it impossible to avoid bias in journalism?

Is it impossible to avoid bias in journalism?

Trying to be fair and impartial in the news industry is a well-established goal. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) released the Principles of Journalism several years ago, stating, "Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map."

But can news organizations always avoid showing a bias? What details need to be added in order to present a holistic map of the story? These questions have troubled both BBC News and the New York Times in the past few weeks.

BBC News recently got a taste of reader discontent when it covered the TUC rally in central London. Editor Helen Boaden wrote a response to the complaints, noting the ways the news organization had tried to prevent bias by interviewing both sides and trying to put the violence into perspective. Boaden reported receiving criticism that the organization was too hard on the protestors, but at the same time heard complaints for others that it seemed like BBC News was showing a bias towards the protestors. She said, "On this occasion... I think the BBC did serve its audiences appropriately and thoroughly."

One commenter on the article agreed. "Generally I've found that if you get complained at by both sides for being too close to the other you are normally somewhere in the middle, between both camps. Where the BBC should be in other words." Other commenters were less sympathetic, one saying, "The problem is that BBC presenters and journalists love to enlighten us with their opinion of events, and this coupled with a definite BBC stance on every issues leads to very great bias on these stories."

The New York Times has also come under fire for its report of an alleged rape in Texas. Originally, the story only interviewed people who negatively portrayed the victim. It also gave detailed descriptions of the area where the victim lived, highlighting the poverty. Upset readers formed a petition to push The Times to apologise. It has received over 47,000 signatures to date.

After the backlash, the publication released a new version of the story, this time with an interview with the victim's father. However, as Poynter points out, it continued its mistake in coverage by adding the victim's parent's country of origin, but neglecting to mention the race of the accused attackers. As the event has been thought to increase racial tension within the area according to the Houston Chronicle, the neglect of these details can be considered leaving out an important piece of the story.

With The Times' policy of not including race unless it's relevant to the story, associate managing editor Philip Corbett defended the decision not to add in that detail, saying, "The new information shifted the focus of the story somewhat away [from] the community reaction. The angry community meeting and the issue of race had been reported widely elsewhere, and weren't central to this story."

Events like these show that upholding PEJ's Principles might not be as easy as it seems. Some critics argue journalistic bias is impossible to hide. Michael Arrington argued last year that reporter bias can't help affecting the story, and that reporters should be open about their opinions so readers know exactly what they're getting.

Should media organizations make their opinions known, or should journalists up their efforts to make articles free from opinion? The debate continues.

Sources: BBC News, Change.org, The Houston Chronicle, The New York Times (1), (2), PEJ, Poynter



Meghan Hartsell


2011-03-30 13:29

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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