Sadly, I received two more complaints last weekend from readers who believe some of the national news stories we publish have liberal bias.
I take these complaints seriously and review them all.
My practice has been to ask which articles they are referring to, and why, specifically, they believe there is bias or opinion.
Despite my many attempts, those who file complaints either don’t respond with specifics or fail to articulate what part of the news article was biased. This has happened over and over again.
One of the readers who complained this week identified three separate news stories and all had to do with news about President Trump. That has become a common thread.
The reader wrote:
“Regarding the Sunday, Dec. 3 articles covering Trump, I am trying to understand why those articles were not printed on your Opinion page. Each has an obvious liberal slant and bias against Trump. You should really have your reporters report the news not push an agenda.”
After he identified the three articles in question, I reviewed the articles, then asked him to be specific about what he saw as bias. I was especially curious about a two-paragraph item in “The Week in Review” in last Sunday’s newspaper that reported in the first paragraph that President Trump had tweeted three anti-Islam videos, followed by a recap of the response from British officials. It was pretty straightforward news reporting. Even the headline was bland, “Trump retweets anti-Islam videos.”
“Well, I see it in all 3 articles,” the reader responded. “I guess we are just wired differently. I am not going to convince someone who does not see what I see, as obvious as it is to me. So thanks for the dialogue and I guess we will just have to agree to disagree. Merry Christmas.”
I find these responses frustrating.
As journalists, we adhere to a stringent ethics policy and our goal is always to be neutral. We discuss the power of words and how they might be interpreted. Consider this from our standard of principles we adopted years ago from the American Society of News Editors:
“Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.”
“To be impartial does not require the press to be unquestioning or to refrain from editorial expression. Sound practice, however, demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion. Articles that contain opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified.”
After reading the complaints from those two readers, I emailed our staff to remind them of this code of ethics and posted it on the bulletin board in the newsroom. I also had it posted on our website for all to see.
I believe we live up to those principles daily. When we make mistakes we issue published corrections. We know we cannot conduct a successful news business if our readers don’t trust us. I think most of them do.
But the “fake news” chants from politicians have taken their toll on us.
Earlier this year, we responded with a rare front page editoral demanding a local politician provide proof that information in our newspaper was not accurate. None was provided.
I’ve been reading some about “confirmation bias” as I grapple with the way the public sees the media.
I got this off a psychological website: “Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views one would like to be true.”
The letter writer did not need to show me any examples, because he was already convinced his beliefs were true. I would like to think I am not suffering from the same malady because I asked for evidence to prove there was a problem. I reviewed the stories in question. I looked hard to correct a problem, but I did not find it.
Consider the impact of social media. How many of us have unfriended someone on Facebook because their viewpoints consistently contradict our own beliefs? And the reality of Facebook is that its algorithms are designed to deliver content that reenforces our interests and beliefs.
If you view certain websites that reflect a specific opinion on politics, you will be bombarded by more content to reenforce those beliefs.
Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana, wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post this week:
“John Maynard Keynes is frequently credited with the aphorism, ‘When I find I’m wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?’ Today, the problem may less be an attitude of stubbornness than that fewer people than ever recognize their mistakes in the first place.
“Ours is an era when it seems no one ever confesses to being wrong. Moreover, everyone is so emphatically right that those who disagree are not merely in error but irredeemably so, candidates not for persuasion but for castigation and ostracism.”
That is why we are so divided.