Bias is not a number and measurement is not the cure

Following up on NY Times public editor’s claim that he could measure bias in the paper — and found none — now Chicago Tribune ombudsman Tim McNulty measures his paper and finds little.

I asked Tribune researchers to catalog all front-page headlines, lead paragraphs and photos with each of the three candidates’ names and images over the past 12 months.

Here are the raw numbers: Obama was cited first in 93 front-page stories in the last year, Clinton in 80 stories and McCain in 39 stories.

So, how much does that tell us? Just a little. It certainly suggests there was more interest in Obama as the campaign heated up. Most stories in the last year focused on daily campaign coverage or reports on larger issues that included the other candidates.

Here’s Jay Rosen on the fallacy of measuring newsroom bias, critiquing Hoyt’s defense of the Times:

It is rare that a single article advances American press think. In fact, it is rare for American press think to advance at all, which is one of the reasons our press is so vexed these days. Take Clark Hoyt’s latest effort as New York Times public editor. It goes like this:

Many readers have complained to me that the Times is not “shooting down the middle” in its coverage of the 2008 campaign. But I’ve been monitoring and grading the coverage myself, and I have a surprise for some of you. “The Times has not been systematically biased in its news coverage, even if it has occasionally given ammunition to those who claim otherwise.”

Ta-da… An unbiased press! Now I do not doubt his word. Clark wouldn’t cook the books. But this is a conversation that’s savagely stuck, gamed not to go anywhere– for all sides. Professional journalists do not improve the situation when they double down on their neutrality and present objectivity as a truth claim about their own work. It is this kind of claim that compels people to furnish–furiously–more chapter and verse in the very bad and very long book of media bias. Which then causes Hoyt to speak lines like, “Bias is a tricky thing to measure, because we all bring our biases to the task.”

The only exit from this system is for people in the press to start recognizing: there is a politics to what they do. They have to get that part right. They have to be more transparent about it.