Trying to Be Fair

In a Washington Post article, executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. (don’t ask if he’s related to Morton or Robert; I don’t know) describes the policies in place at his newspaper to separate the editorial staff from the news staff and to maintain as much objectivity as possible. It’s an excellent reminder of the standards that most mainstream news organizations apply to their reporting, even when it comes to political campaigns:

Of course, journalists are people, too, and cannot be expected to completely cleanse their professional minds of human emotions, especially when covering highly charged campaigns or controversial issues. Yet we ask Post reporters and editors to come as close as possible to doing just that.

As I have said and written before, I no longer exercise my right to vote. As the final decision-maker on news coverage in The Post, I refuse to decide, even privately, which candidate should be president or a member of the city council or what policies should be set for health care or taxes. I want my mind to remain open to all sides and possibilities as I supervise our coverage.

[Read the full article]

Granted, bias inevitably can creep in from time to time, no matter how hard the news outlet tries to keep it at bay. And we shouldn’t just blindly trust what we read in the paper. But I think there’s a real danger in throwing up our hands and saying, “all media are biased, so why bother to trust anyone?” Blind distrust seems as bad to me as blind trust.

How do we know, then, who is right when different news sources, or different political candidates, make contradictory claims? I’m not sure, beyond looking for holes in logic, gathering information from a variety of sources, and keeping an eye out for traditional “propaganda” techniques, such as unnamed sources and faulty appeals to emotion.

One very interesting take on this is an article in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Blinded by Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality.” In the article Chris Mooney contends that “balanced” news coverage is often unfair, especially in science reporting, because it gives equal time or weight to fringe theories as it does to mainstream theories that have been tested and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Without a doubt, the topic on which scientists have most vehemently decried both the media and the Bush administration is global warming. While some scientific uncertainty remains in the climate field, the most rigorous peer-reviewed assessments — produced roughly every five years by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — have cemented a consensus view that human greenhouse gas emissions are probably (i.e., the conclusion has a fairly high degree of scientific certainty) helping to fuel the greenhouse effect and explain the observed planetary warming of the past fifty years. Yet the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine this position by hyping lingering uncertainties and seeking to revise government scientific reports. It has also relied upon energy interests and a small cadre of dissenting scientists (some of whom are funded, in part, by industry) in formulating climate policy.
[Read the full article]

As I learned from a recent Frontline report, The Persuaders, which aired on PBS and is now available online at, one of the main forces behind Republican attempts to shift public attitudes toward global warming, now known to Republicans as “climate change,” is Frank Luntz, who appears to be the wizard behind Karl Rove’s curtain. Little known outside elite political circles, Luntz tests and retests words and phrases on focus groups to get a sense of which ones will resonate with the greatest number of people. He packages these phrases into “words that work” talking points and sells them to Republican politicians. It’s a scary thing to see his focus-grouped statements coming out of the mouths of members of congress and members of the Bush administration. Check out for lots of examples of this guy’s insidious spin.

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2 Responses to Trying to Be Fair

  1. Kevin says:

    So… Fox isn’t really fair and balanced? I knew that O’Reilly seemed a bit biased.
    Very, very insightful, Karl. As always, excellent food for thought.

  2. Karl says:

    Thanks, Kevin. You’re too kind.

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