Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ethical Journalism and Bias

Hello Reader,
Got ethical journalism?

Proper, real reporters, as part of their felt profession of ethical journalism, make a huge effort to be unbiased. 

A student taking a diploma in journalism told me, that his college professor told his class, that if an editor was ordered, by the newspaper owner, to be biased, or in other words, to go against journalistic ethics, then he would resign, and if the order stood, so would his replacement. I believe it.

Some columns, while not purely facts, are much closer to news than mere opinion, as the writer is presenting a context for the news by “connecting the dots,” or, say, explaining the implications of a new court ruling. Syndicated columnist Gwynn Dyer, who made the 10-episode CBC series War, is a man very knowledgable about social studies and armed forces. Dyer once offended the owner of a chain of Canadian newspapers because Dyer was honest about Israel. The owner, not being a journalist, ordered the editors to drop his column. As Dyer tells it in the forward to one of his column collections, while the editor in the city where the owner lived toed the line, most of the editors across Canada quietly kept him on, for as long as they could. They didn’t like being told to enforce a bias against unfavourable news.

But you ask, isn’t it human nature to have an opinion? A bias? Especially from your religion? Especially if Muslim? Wouldn’t a Sunni Muslim refuse to report anything good about a Shia Muslim? (and vice versa) Or anything good about a “person of the Jewish persuasion?” My answer is one phrase: “Allah bless Al-Jazeera.” Trained by British journalists, Al-Jazeera is now doing trusted, balanced, unbiased reporting throughout the Middle East and beyond.  

Of course, every steam engine needs a release valve. My local newspaper includes outlets for biased emotions by the staff, in the form of editorials, headlined as such, and by personal opinion columns, marked as such, by having personal photographs attached. 

In my town, the broadsheet daily (thicker, with broader pages) would have its editorials made by a “committee,” which I guess still further smoothed out bias, while the tabloid daily (smaller, with tabloid sized pages) had it’s editorials written by one man, the chief editor. He told me during a phone interview, back when I was a campus reporter, that part of the value of having him write the editorial, besides having individuality, was that he would have a single topic. The readers knew what he felt to be most important thing that day. Meanwhile the broadsheet’s editorial committee would have several topics on the same page. I remember he laughed with me to say he was not trying to be like the Daily Bugle’s editor, J. Jonah Jameson. (The boss of Spiderman)

Alas, the tabloid has since gone to using an editorial committee. But at least I notice an attempt at “balance” to smooth out bias: It has columns from both leftists and rightists, both local writers and reprints from other newspapers, both Canadian and foreign. Here’s a sample paragraph from a column, with subjective words like ‘hankering,’ ‘scandal generator,’ and ‘enemies.’ These words are not, as in news reporting, “just the facts, Ma’am.” (Catchphrase of Detective Friday on Dragnet, the radio series, later a TV series)

"If only Barrack Obama's enemies had known what a scandal generator the Nobel Peace Prize would be, they'd have been hankering for him to win it last year."
Lisa Van Dusen, Calgary Sun Washington Bureau, October 14, 2009

Now, U.S. citizens, with their backslapping and craving to be popular, might crave to know what others think, but truly, in a Canadian or British newspaper, the reporters would be very careful not to speculate or mind read the public, in case they were untruthful by accident. They could report the “facts” of an opinion poll, but if they gave their own opinion of “what everybody felt” they would be “editorializing.” Sometimes they might do so, as in reporting on a scandalous serial murderer, but always very carefully. (Another cultural difference, by the way, besides valuing conformity, is that U.S. reporters are allowed to use deceit, as in not telling anyone that they are reporters. That paper airplane wouldn’t fly up here.) 

While newspapers set the gold standard for journalistic ethics, what about Television?

The first TV newscasters were from conventional journalism, such as Edward R. Murrow. You may remember his final words in the movie Goodnight and Good Luck where, in his capacity as a broadcaster, his told his audience to step away from “the box.” Not the advice anyone with a regular job in Hollywood would give today. My point is that the idiot box is a different medium than newsprint, for reasons I won’t go into here. If you’re interested, Neil Postman explains it very well. See his How to Watch TV News and Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book where the opening chapter has been published as a stand-alone essay.  Postman has noted, for one thing, how the words spoken in a standard half-hour TV “Six o’clock News” broadcast would be fewer than the words on just the newspaper’s front page. 

If I keep referring to newsprint, it’s because I gather from my reading that ethics in print were always the standard, the standard most important and the hardest to reach, like ballet is to the dance world, or poetry to those who write great novels and plays.

Suffice to say, the two mediums of journalism diverged. To my mind, part of the difference is that television was descended not from newsrooms, or from dramatic stage plays, but from vaudeville, where people would go out to relax and see the guys with funny hats and canes, going out to be entertained, not to think. As for “the box,” I can sometimes hear a TV announcer’s voice slowwwing down, as the camera pans… because for consumers of the boob tube the emotional  picture is more important than… cramming in wordy information and facts.

As for newspaper ethics, I guess it helped that, in contrast to TV networks being so focused on ratings, at newspapers the profit center, that is to say, the folks selling and drawing up advertisements, would be in a different room or on a separate floor. Not part of the culture of the reporters.

In a newspaper, hard news is in the A section, while sports, entertainment and lifestyle will be buried further into the paper. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with a marked off opinion having a bias. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier blog post:

During a discussion on "journalism" a friend made reference to the Fox TV news. I didn't have the heart to tell him "Fox isn't real," that I didn't know of any city daily that was a Fox-style newspaper. It's too bad. If you don't read, then you don't have the same expectations for "real journalism." You won't even have the term "infotainment" in your vocabulary. This I know because the word was new—caused a burst of laughter—when I said it to my night school class of older university students during their final semester. It's too bad: during their university education they had missed out on grasping everyday media.

... Fox News executive Michael Clemente said, "The average news consumer can certainly distinguish between the A-section of the newspaper and the editorial page, which is what our programming represents."
Only it's not called Fox Opinion, it's all called Fox News.
Lisa Van Dusen, Calgary Sun Washington Bureau, October 15, 2009

Sean Crawford
~Clay Shirkey explains dwindling newspapers well and at length: (link, remember to scroll down; his second article is much better than the first, and he has a newspaper funding piece at the very bottom.)

Idiot note: 
~That newspaper owner has censored before. One time an ethical cartoonist responded by depicting her with a flame thrower, as one of the censoring firemen out of Fahrenheit 451. 

She had a hissy fit, saying the big nose on her meant anti-semitism. (since stereotypical Jews are known for big noses) 

Of course, the classic sin of the censor is to not read—if only she had read the cartoons in her own newspapers of, say, the cavemen in B.C. —with the self-described “fat broad” and the cute one— or Blondie and Dagwood, or Hi and Lois, she would have known that the less dainty person gets the bigger nose, just as Hi’s neighbour Thirsty has a bigger nose than Hi. The neighbour was portrayed as alcoholic, to be sure, and as a typical suburban fellow, not as a typical Jewish guy. 

Stupid @#& censor!  

Farewell to all that:
This is my third recent essay on journalistic ethics. If the golden age of journalism is passing away then I wanted to write about newspapers one last time. Now I have. 

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