In his 1979 book Deciding What’s News, the Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans defined what he called the journalist’s “paraideology,” which, he says, unconsciously forms and strengthens much of what we think of as news judgment. This consists largely of a number of “enduring values” — such as “altruistic democracy” and “responsible capitalism” — that are reformist, not partisan. “In reality,” Gans writes, “the news is not so much conservative or liberal as it is reformist; indeed, the enduring values are very much like the values of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century.” My abortion story, then, came from my sense that what was happening violated my understanding of “altruistic democracy.” John Laurence distills Gans’s paraideology into simpler terms: “We are for honesty, fairness, courage, humility. We are against corruption, exploitation, cruelty, criminal behavior, violence, discrimination, torture, abuse of power, and many other things.” Clifford Levy, a reporter for The New York Times whose series on abuse in New York’s homes for the mentally ill won a Pulitzer this year, says, “Of all the praise I got for the series, the most meaningful was from other reporters at the paper who said it made them proud to work there because it was a classic case of looking out for those who can’t look out for themselves.”
This “paraideology,” James Carey explains, can lead to charges of liberal bias. “There is a bit of the reformer in anyone who enters journalism,” he says. “And reformers are always going to make conservatives uncomfortable to an extent because conservatives, by and large, want to preserve the status quo.”
Gans, though, notes a key flaw in the journalist’s paraideology. “Journalists cannot exercise news judgment,” he writes, “without a composite of nation, society, and national and social institutions in their collective heads, and this picture is an aggregate of reality judgments … In doing so, they cannot leave room for the reality judgments that, for example, poor people have about America; nor do they ask, or even think of asking, the kinds of questions about the country that radicals, ultraconservatives, the religiously orthodox, or social scientists ask as a result of their reality judgments.”
This understanding of “the other” has always been — and will always be — a central challenge of journalism. No individual embodies all the perspectives of a society. But we are not served in this effort by a paralyzing fear of being accused of bias. In their recent book The Press Effect, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman make a strong case that this fear was a major factor in the coverage of the Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election, and its influence on journalists was borne out in my reporting for this piece. “Our paper is under constant criticism by people alleging various forms of bias,” says the Star-Tribune’s Eric Black. “And there is a daily effort to perform in ways that will make it harder to criticize. Some are reasonable, but there is a line you can cross after which you are avoiding your duties to truth-telling.” In a March 10 piece critical of the press’s performance at Bush’s prewar press conference, USA Today’s Peter Johnson quoted Sam Donaldson as saying that it is difficult for the media — especially during war — “to press very hard when they know that a large segment of the population doesn’t want to see a president whom they have anointed having to squirm.” If we’re about to go to war — especially one that is controversial — shouldn’t the president squirm?
It is important, always, for reporters to understand their biases, to understand what the accepted narratives are, and to work against them as much as possible. This might be less of a problem if our newsrooms were more diverse — intellectually and socioeconomically as well as in gender, race, and ethnicity — but it would still be a struggle. There is too much easy opinion passing for journalism these days, and this is in no way an attempt to justify that. Quite the opposite. We need deep reporting and real understanding, but we also need reporters to acknowledge all that they don’t know, and not try to mask that shortcoming behind a gloss of attitude, or drown it in a roar of oversimplified assertions.
Toward a Better Definition of Objectivity