Journalism is not stenography. Bias in the media Part 2.

I have been thinking a great deal about the topic of bias in the news media and today, I want to present another argument for the types of questions asked by the New York Times in its interview with Donald Trump, as well as the types of questions asked by PBS Newshour anchors as they grill the guests on their television program. I made Part 1 of this argument yesterday, and feel the urge to expand upon it.

First, in journalism we don’t just write down what people say. Journalism is active. We ask follow-up questions to flush out the full picture. Sometimes those questions deliberately challenge the speaker, not because we believe the other side of the argument, but because we need their response to it. We’re not stenographers, in other words.

For an example, I show my introductory classes the first 30 minutes or so of All the President’s Men, up to the sequence when neophyte reporter Bob Woodward is awakened from a sound sleep by his city editor and ordered to the courthouse to watch the arraignment of a team of burglars who attempted to bug the phones in the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

Woodward’s job — like any reporter’s — is not just to watch. It’s to find out all he can about them. And there is a great deal to find out. He does a remarkable job. And believe me, he doesn’t sit still for more than a minute or two at a time.

That active participation happens because we have to verify things. My students are all familiar with the Verification Rap I do in class to help them remember the single most important element of the Principles of Journalism to learn at the start of their careers. Its importance is crucial, I should add, even if they don’t want a career in the field, but they might someday commit random acts of citizen journalism.

So, back to the bias argument, which is, I assure you, related to the foregoing. It has been said (often by journalists) that when Donald Trump was a candidate, he rarely provided details about how he would accomplish the things he promised. If a candidate can’t provide any specific plans or policies, this might indicate that he or she is … well … bullshitting. Might it not sound as if a journalist were anti-Trump, if that journalist were asking the kinds of questions designed to elucidate this shortcoming? Yet, is it not something the public really needs to know? Isn’t that our job?

Alternatively, a lack of plans and policies might simply indicate that the candidate has no idea how to implement the plans they promise, but still intends to do these things. Whatever the reason (and the reasons are a significant part of what journalists wish to ascertain), people need to know this about a candidate.

The public also needs to know if a candidate is lying — a term one never used to see in objective media before the 2016 election because it means the person was aware that what they said was false, and we didn’t always have evidence of that. This fall, for the first time ever, I saw the Associated Press use the term lying to refer to a politician’s statements. Shortly afterward, the New York Times and others followed suit. This happened because they felt it was something people needed to know! They didn’t do it out of malice.

And how, exactly, is the journalist supposed to verify the things that people need to know without asking questions that sometimes sound a bit challenging?

A journalist – particularly one who has been following the same candidate for some time -has access to a great deal of information s/he cannot get into the stories that are published. The general public might not have time to sift through a candidate’s every recorded speech and public statement. They might not have an opportunity to be present for the “stump speech” the candidate gives repeatedly, outlining the policies and plans s/he stands for. Or they might not realize that a particular candidate doesn’t actually have a stump speech that includes any policies and plans. The journalist does.

When people accuse us of bias, they should realize that getting the answers to questions can involve asking some questions that might sound biased. But it usually doesn’t mean the journalist holds that viewpoint. Only that he or she is trying to get answers and presenting the opposing argument has been shown, over time, to be among the best ways of prying that information loose.

Some argue that challenging sources is not the best way to get information. But some of those doing the arguing are people who have a chance to do long interviews – they aren’t limited to 20 seconds and one shouted question in a press conference or scrum. And yes, journalists call those occasions when we gather around a politician in a group with cameras and microphones, shouting questions, a “scrum.” You might want to check out the origins of that term in the game of rugby.

For any non-journalists who are reading this, I pose a challenge: Try to imagine how you would handle this task of informing the public about a candidate, his or her plans and policies, his or her fitness for public office, and all the other questions the public needs answers to before voting in a democratic election. What questions would you ask, if you only had the opportunity to ask questions? Think about it. What questions would you ask, and how would you ask them?



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Bias in the news media

Lately, I’ve been hearing from students that the news media are “biased” – even the ones I have always thought of as neutral. Until recently, I dismissed this as arising from ignorance of which media were actually objective. I proceeded to introduce them to PBS, NPR, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But some people think even those media – who at least strive to be objective -are biased as well. Even my beloved sister and husband spot examples. These include questions asked in the Trump interview at the New York Times this week, and questions asked by my heroes Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill on the PBS Newshour, that struck them as “biased.”

Worse yet, my students often cite this perceived bias as an excuse to watch and read no news at all. All media are tarred by the same brush, to them, as if the slight nuances of bias in the media I have cited were equivalent to the partisan rants on Breitbart or the Huffington Post.

I realize that there is bias in everyone. I learned that years ago in Sociology 101. We all have a natural, human tendency to consider some people part of Us and others part of Them. However, there is a huge difference between people who are aware of this tendency and try to counteract it, and people who make no attempt at all to conceal their views or balance their own perspective with others that might lend insight.

I will always attempt to explain this to students, one class at a time, and introduce them to the joys of a daily news habit. I have them sign up for emails from Vox, the Skimm and, and recommend that they sign up for the Washington Post, which offers free subscriptions to anyone with an email that ends in .edu These media are a far cry from the outright bias of partisan propaganda. But we should always be on our guard.

Thus, I am proud of my husband and my sister for pointing out instances of bias in the New York Times and PBS Newshour. Everyone should be vigilant about possible bias in the news. And I’m sure those news outlets would be interested to know about people’s perceptions along those lines. (I’m equally sure they already hear from many, many people whenever they perceive the slightest bias.) In their case, however, I also sincerely believe they take those admonitions seriously and attempt to do better in future. That’s why I’m still watching and reading them. I can’t say that for all media.

I’m worried that the current preoccupation with “fake news” is going to supersede the debate about bias. Both are important, and should continue.




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Academia, Love Me Back

A poignant and hard-hitting post on being accused of plagiarism, apparently because of her Latina heritage and the assumption that “This is not your language” (the professor’s words!)


My name is Tiffany Martínez. As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced…

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Paris Attacks: What They Want

The Daily Think

I feel so sad this morning. One of my fears, I guess is an obvious one. That our happily mixed society will be damaged forever. Then they would be winning. #ViveLaFrance

Stick together02

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Ron Eade, well-known former Citizen food editor, dies at 61

Ron was my favourite Citizen colleague, mentor and friend. RIP Ron. You are much missed.

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Fall course will merge journalism with civic engagement

Fantastic project. Sounds like something John Carroll might try as well!

Emergent Journalism

One of my projects for fall is a new course in partnership with our local PBS affiliate, WXXI Public Broadcasting. The idea is that collaborating will help extend the station’s newsgathering capacity through the students’ reporting work while the students get valuable experience and portfolio pieces.

Such collaborations are hardly unique, having been done by other schools and other professional partners. But it’s a first for our program.

We’re treating it as a service learning course under the auspices of my college’s Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, and so some of the initial background reading will be about journalism and community building. Fortunately, there’s a lot of good material out there about that topic.

A curated reading list from longtime online community journalist and blogger Lisa Williams offered me a good start on my “string-gathering” for this project, as well as a good quote describing the…

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Reflections on Seymour Hersh, Gary Webb and others whose stories we don’t hear

He is perhaps the finest reporter of his generation, but in the weeks since the publication of Seymour Hersh’s account of how the White House falsified the story of the killing of Osama bin Laden, few have followed up on those startling revelations.

Instead, as the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, about a week after Hersh’s story broke in the London Review of Books (because his usual publisher, The New Yorker, allegedly passed on it), there has been a “disgraceful” reception by American media to Hersh’s detailed investigative account.

“Barrels of ink have been spilled ripping apart Hersh’s character, while barely any follow-up reporting has been done to corroborate or refute his claims—even though there’s no doubt that the Obama administration has repeatedly misinformed and misled the public about the incident. Even less attention has been paid to the little follow-up reporting that we did get, which revealed that the CIA likely lied about its role in finding bin Laden, which it used to justify torture to the public.

Hersh has attempted to force the media to ask questions about its role in covering a world-shaping event—but it’s clear the media has trouble asking such questions if the answers are not the ones they want to hear.”

To someone like myself, who has worked in and studied the North American news media, this scenario sounds utterly familiar. Even Hersh, as CJR points out, encountered it when he wrote the first story of the My Lai massacre in 1969, for which he also had difficulty finding a U.S. publisher. He later won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

Those who have not had the opportunity to study these phenomena, and who are interested in learning the consequences of increasing ownership of U.S. media by large conglomerates bent more on profit than on journalism, will find a crash course provided in a 2012 film that never got wide distribution in the U.S., but is currently making the rounds in small venues among those who care about press freedoms and social justice. It’s called “Shadows of Liberty.”

On June 1, a group of 100 or more Clevelanders gathered to watch “Shadows of Liberty” at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in suburban Rocky River. Among the film’s many examples that clearly illustrate how U.S. media have stopped covering what really matters and instead provide a diet of bread and circuses reminiscent of the waning Roman empire, was the story of Gary Webb. If you haven’t heard of Webb, look him up. He was another great investigative reporter who might have achieved the status of Seymour Hersh, had he not committed suicide after his career was destroyed by a campaign of character assassination remarkably similar to that now being visited upon Hersh.

Hersh will survive, of course. He is arguably the finest American investigative reporter of his generation, a fact that is quite well established. Thanks to his courage and perseverance — and perhaps most important, his independence (he works freelance, and for very sound reasons) — we have been told the truth about the Osama bin Laden raid and the lies told about it by the White House. But while Hersh is sure to survive, how many others, who might have been great reporters, are dying in the wilderness of the U.S. media today?

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