In the early 1990s, I was a statehouse reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia. Every time a bill was introduced in the House to restrict access to abortion, the speaker, who was solidly pro-choice, sent the bill to the health committee, which was chaired by a woman who was also pro-choice. Of course, the bills never emerged from that committee. I was green and, yes, pro-choice, so it took a couple of years of witnessing this before it sunk in that — as the antiabortion activists had been telling me from day one — the committee was stacked with pro-choice votes and that this was how “liberal” leadership killed the abortion bills every year while appearing to let the legislative process run its course. Once I understood, I eagerly wrote that story, not only because I knew it would get me on page one, but also because such political maneuverings offended my reporter’s sense of fairness. The bias, ultimately, was toward the story.
Reporters are biased, but not in the oversimplified, left-right way that Ann Coulter and the rest of the bias cops would have everyone believe. As Nicholas Confessore argued in The American Prospect, most of the loudest bias-spotters were not reared in a newsroom. They come from politics, where everything is driven by ideology. Voting Democratic and not going to church — two bits of demography often trotted out to show how liberal the press is — certainly have some bearing on one’s interpretation of events. But to leap to the conclusion that reporters use their precious column inches to push a left-wing agenda is specious reasoning at its worst. We all have our biases, and they can be particularly pernicious when they are unconscious. Arguably the most damaging bias is rarely discussed — the bias born of class. A number of people interviewed for this story said that the lack of socioeconomic diversity in the newsroom is one of American journalism’s biggest blind spots. Most newsroom diversity efforts, though, focus on ethnic, racial, and gender minorities, which can often mean people with different skin color but largely the same middle-class background and aspirations. At a March 13 panel on media bias at Columbia’s journalism school, John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News & World Report, said, “It used to be that anybody could be a reporter by walking in the door. It’s a little harder to do that now, and you don’t get the working-class Irish poor like Hamill or Breslin or me. What you get is people from Ivy League colleges with upper-class credentials, what you get is people who more and more tend to be and act alike.” That, he says, makes it hard for a newsroom to spot its own biases.
Still, most reporters’ real biases are not what political ideologues tend to think. “Politically I’m a reporter,” says Eric Nalder, an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. Reporters are biased toward conflict because it is more interesting than stories without conflict; we are biased toward sticking with the pack because it is safe; we are biased toward event-driven coverage because it is easier; we are biased toward existing narratives because they are safe and easy. Consider the story — written by reporters around the country — of how Kenneth L. Lay, the former CEO of Enron, encouraged employees to buy company stock as he was secretly dumping his. It was a conveniently damning narrative, and easy to believe. Only it turned out, some two years later, to be untrue, leading The New York Times’s Kurt Eichenwald to write a story correcting the record on February 9.
Mostly, though, we are biased in favor of getting the story, regardless of whose ox is being gored. Listen to Daniel Bice, an investigative columnist at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, summarize his reporting philosophy: “Try not to be boring, be a reliable source of information, cut through the political, corporate, and bureaucratic bullshit, avoid partisanship, and hold politicians’ feet to the fire.” It would be tough to find a reporter who disagrees with any of that.