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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About Carrie Buchanan

Journalism and communication professor, Canadian, now living and teaching in the United States. Longtime journalist in Canada, primarily for the Ottawa Citizen.
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