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The Best Journalism Isn’t Unbiased, But Self Aware

By David L. Hawkins, III / Published on Wednesday, 18 Jul 2018 18:07 PM / No Comments / 81 views

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Lessons in Journalism
  • The Best Journalism Isn’t Unbiased, But Self Aware

In the age of fake news, we must ask ourselves this: ‘what constitutes fake news?’ Is it just a term that the President throws around to excuse himself from responsibility? Or is it an actual threat to America in the way it tends to deceive the average citizen?

I offer this answer, fake news is not news that is biased, but news that is factually untrue. It is news which cannot hold any water once fact checked. Fake news comes from the left and right and all areas of the political spectrum. Many act as if this term only covers news that appears to be biased towards the opposite point of view. This is untrue. Through my political journey I have come to the realization that journalism is unable to truly be completely unbiased. Instead journalism should be aware of said bias. It should draw the line between what the writer believes and what is actually true.

This is something many modern journalists misconstrue. What is the definition of journalism?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as:
1a : the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media
b : the public press
c : an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium
2a : writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine
b : writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation
c : writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest

There is no real indication that journalism has to be entirely unbiased. Editorials are obviously included as a part of journalism. There can be biases. Perhaps news can show a leaning but when does a leaning make an article untrustworthy?

News becomes untrustworthy when this leaning/bias comes before the facts. You are allowed to be an honest journalist and be open about your leaning but your leaning should not trump the facts of a situation. Your reports must stick to the actual events of the story. And when you say things that may turn out to be false in the future, like allegations later proved to be false, I would recommend making that crystal clear. It makes your journalism much more transparent and believable.

When writing about the influx of sexual assault and rape allegations, you can straight up say that Celebrity A actually sexually assaulted a certain amount of people. In actuality, only a few of those cases are confirmed while the rest are mere allegations. Your story will be less sensational but more believable if you are clear about what cases are confirmed and which are only allegations. The exact number does not somehow make this celebrity’s actions any less horrible, but it does provide details that elevates a story on that topic over another story on that topic that may not be nearly as informative.

In reports about things such as rape and murder, it is hard not to biased, although in these cases people typically do not mind bias. It is difficult for journalists after 9/11 to not be transparent when condemning the terrorists. How could you not show emotion in such cases of human evil and depravity? The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics published an article in 2010 that expresses this sentiment perfectly:

Emotion and objectivity. Good coverage of disasters is a skillful combination of the emotional and the objective sides of journalism. The issue is not whether journalists should display emotions. The idea that journalists must be detached and neutral in the middle of chaos is outdated and wrong.

Asking journalists to be full detached and emotionless asks them not to accurately record the human experience. It asks them to be mere surveyors rather than actual humans attempting to inform other humans on what is occurring in their towns and their states and their countries and the world. People who preach the myth of unbiased journalism are asking for calloused accounts of moment when people need more. The journalism that lasts and affects people is the type of journalism that demands action.

While I understand that there needs to be a fine line between activists and journalists, I do see the two cut from the same cloth. Many say that the best journalism comes from people who aren’t paid or at least aren’t paid by big companies. True activists are typically those who aren’t paid to believe in something, and surely don’t need to be paid. This is why I think the Palmetto News-Opinion should always remain independent. I may not get paid now from this site but I hope that it one day gains the readership for me to make a living off of it. Journalism is what I enjoy doing, but I also enjoy activism.

I do not see a way to fully divorce the journalism from the activist for one specific reason, they must both participate in the process. It is hard for me to write about local campaigns while not revealing who I am supporting because I am a voter. I work on local campaigns. I sometimes work on campaigns other than the candidate I am actually voting for, though I won’t work for a campaign which I do not believe in. The way to approach a story you are covering, should be to look at it as an investigator first. Leave your beliefs at the door until you get the facts. Once you have what you need to write the story, bring everything together. Make it a captivating story by including all of the details along with your own experiences and takes on the situation. This takes it from mundane news, to something people can be truly interested by.

How should you express your beliefs in a non-Editorial?

Try to back them with facts, unless unnecessary. In a recent article I did to update several developments on the Parkland shooting story, I did mention that I was a 2nd Amendment supporter. I did not include any followup facts as it was not the time or place. I treated this showing of my views as an aside. In theatre, an aside is a brief comment that a character says to the audience. This comment is not heard by the other characters. I intend this small comment in my Parkland article to not be a main idea by any means. It is merely a statement used to provide insight into a development of this story.

When inserting your beliefs in an article not meant to be an editorial, do not over do it. Include it as a small detail and if you do not believe that it contributes any insight into the situation than feel free to omit it. That is entirely your call. When I talk about bias in journalism, I think being unbiased will never be reached by being self-aware is typically fairly simple. Admit your beliefs and be open to some of those beliefs changing as facts come in. Be critical of certain facts when you deem necessary, as the facts in a breaking news story are subject to change in the blink of an eye.

Some news outlets may take certain details of a story and sensationalize it through the frame of a certain view that they hold. I advise you to take all of the details into account and decide what to do with them. Challenge yourself to craft an honest and informative story that shows the reader who you are as well as the subject of the story. As writers, I feel like leaving a piece of yourself in your articles is impossible. Just be aware of it and admit to it. Don’t hop onto a pedestal and claim to be unbiased. When caught in bias, you will only be further discredited.

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