Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Media Bias, or the lack thereof

I’ve been in journalism now for about 15 years. During that time I’ve worked for papers in mostly liberal Connecticut (Shoreline Times) and mostly conservative Texas (Kerrville Daily Times, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal). Based on my experience, which I acknowledge is not overly vast, I believe that most charges of media bias whether from the right or left are overblown.
I was politically active in college - working on local campaigns and writing letters to the editor - but when I took my first newspaper job I realized that aspect of my life would have to be put on hold. I wasn’t going to be as extreme as one reporter I met in Connecticut who said that he never voted in order to maintain his neutrality, but I also did not want anyone to be able to accuse me of introducing bias into my reporting.
Most of the reporters I have had the pleasure to know and work with have been fairly liberal in their politics with a few exceptions. But they generally weren’t as interested in politics as I was and didn’t keep up with it like I did. I could always rattle off the members of the House of Representatives (state or federal) the way most people could name the players on their favorite football team. So it didn’t take long for me to land the political beat at each newspaper I worked at. As the political reporter I was always very much aware that anything I wrote would be scrutinized by people looking to bolster their preconceived notions of media bias. So I always bent over backward to be as fair and accurate in every story I wrote.
I would occasionally run across people who were difficult to work with because of their perceptions of the media - liberals who didn’t trust somebody who worked at a “conservative” paper, or conservatives - religious right in particular - who didn’t trust any media period. But most of the people who I would call politically savvy were easy to work with and understood how the process works.

How it works:
Newspapers are businesses and they are in the game to make money. They make money by building up a large circulation base and then selling it to advertisers. The money they collect in subscription fees is just a small supplement to the overall budget which is supported by advertising. If they could sell newspapers that were filled with nothing but advertising they would do so in a heartbeat and fire all the reporters and editors who are considered non-revenue generating. But they can’t which is why reporters still have jobs.
Most newspapers have about 60 percent of their space filled with advertising (including classifieds) leaving about 30 to 40 percent for the news hole. A lot of this space is filled with regular features and columns they get from wire services leaving just a portion for local news copy. As a reporter you quickly realize that your role in life is to fill space and to do so on a daily or weekly basis. In the newspaper business it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday, the editor always wants to know “what have you done for me lately.”
Newspapers try to be perceived as being right square in the middle of where they see their community being in order to cast the widest net for building up circulation figures. They don’t want to go too far to the left or right for fear of losing subscribers and thus losing ad revenue.

Now some people will always see bias in the media because their views are more intense or extreme than what they see reflected in the paper. But the lack of a right-wing or left-wing slant on the news is not the same thing as liberal or conservative bias.
There will always be things in the newspaper that will irritate partisans on either side of an issue. I find things to gripe about all the time. But I also know that my views are not always in synch with the “mainstream” and because I know how the system works I am not surprised to see things I disagree with. That doesn’t mean that newspapers never make mistakes or go too far in trying to be “objective.” But broad condemnations of the media as being biased are generally overblown and ill informed.
But I also think that media criticisms such as that being done by my blogging buddy Alamo Commando are a good thing. I think it is healthy for the news media to be aware that they are being constantly scrutinized even if all the criticisms are not always fair. At least these folks are reading the newspaper every day and what more can you ask? The scariest thing for us newspaper folk are the people who never bother to read a paper. You know, like President Bush.

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