Posts about objectivity

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.

One picture…

mediameaculpa.jpg

By Matt Davies, via Make Them Accountable.

What is the Times thinking?

The only thing more shocking that the New York Times printing salacious innuendo about a presidential candidate is its editor not understanding why this caused controversy. I’m not sure whether he’s isolated or clueless or issuing cynical spin.

I was gobsmacked reading the story when it came out. I didn’t blog on it because Jay Rosen did a great job succinctly dissecting its issues and implications and so I linked to him.

But I was even more astounded reading later that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is surprised at the reaction to the story. In the paper’s effort to respond to its many, many critics, Keller says they “expected the reaction to be intense” and he tries to dismiss and discredit that reaction as “a time-honored tactic for dealing with potentially damaging news stories” rather as than righteous denial. But then he goes on:

Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site). I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing….

How could he possibly be surprised at the reaction to the Times all but accusing John McCain of having an affair with a lobbyist? How could he credibly be amazed at the reaction to the Times doing this without evidence except for the views of anonymous and admittedly disgruntled former aides saying they were convinced — convinced is the word the Times used — of an affair without them giving evidence? Can the editor of the Times possibly be this blind to the implications of what the paper did?

But Keller tries to tell us that we’re concentrating on the wrong thing here, that we don’t see what the real story is. He says it’s a narrative about McCain’s life. Keller’s deputy, Jill Abramson, also lectures us about missing their point:

Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required. The Times story was not about a romantic relationship. It was about a senator who had been embroiled in scandal, then rebuilt his career as a reformer and concern among his aides that his relationship with Ms. Iseman was putting that career at risk.

Do they have no news judgment? The lede in this story was obvious to everyone but the Times:

Paper of record hints that Republican presidential candidate has affair with lobbyist with no evidence other than statements attributed to anonymous sources, who the papers admits are disgruntled former associates of the candidate.

That is the lede. That is the story. That the editors of the Times don’t see that is incredible — that is to say, not credible. They can’t be that clueless, can they? They can’t be that bad at understanding news and politics, public opinion and media, surely. So are they merely trying to spin us? Are they embarrassed at what they did? Are they trying to convince themselves as well as us that this sex story — the sort of thing these high-fallutin’ journalists would usually insist is the stuff of Drudge and blogs and tabloids — is just an illustration in their bigger point about the life and times of John McCain? Surely, they can’t thing we’re that dumb. Surely, they’re not that dumb.

That’s what throws me about this story. I can’t figure out what these Timesmen are thinking.

In any case, there can be no doubt that the Times doesn’t just cover the story, it is part of the story. Its coverage of not only McCain but also of Clinton (whom the editorial page and publisher may have endorsed but whom the newsroom clearly can’t abide) is material to the story itself. So we deserve to know more about how the Times is covering the campaign. We need to know what they’re thinking.

: LATER: In Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s appraisal of the metascandal, Keller once again tries to tell us what the story is when what he really has done is tell us what the story isn’t. Keller:

If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members. But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.

Hoyt:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap….

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

The real elephant in the room: This was bad journalism.

: LATER: JigSaw sees some silver in the cloud over the Times (I’m rush, so please follow the link for more links):

I think some the impact of the Siegal Reports can be clearly seen here.

* When, in the history of the NYT, has it been held publicly accountable by thousands of readers using its own publishing tool (web site)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, has its editors and journalists engaged their readers in near-real-time two-way conversation?

* When, in the history of the NYT, could any interested reader engage its editors and journalists authoritatively using the NYT’s own publicly available Reader’s Guide, Confidential News Sources Policy, internal memos (Assuring Our Credibility) and accounts of their internal debates (More Flexibility and Reality in Explaining Anonymity)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, was there a NYT insider who would publicly tell its readers that the Executive Editor got it wrong?

The NYT should be embarrassed by the McCain story, but take pride in their public engagement.

Journalists’ votes matter

Media have an Obama problem they’re going to have to grapple with now or after the election: They love him. They hate Hillary. And the gap between the two is clearly seen in coverage, which surely is having an impact on the election.

This, to me, only gives more weight to the argument that journalists should be disclosing their allegiances and votes. Reporters are not just covering the story. This year, they are part of the story. The ethic of transparency that I have learned online and that journalists apply to everyone they cover should also apply to them. I say that journalists have a responsibility to reveal their own views and votes — even as they endeavor to report apart from them with fairness, completeness, accuracy, and intellectual honesty — and we have a right to judge their success or failure accordingly as we also have a right to judge their roles in the stories they are covering.

No, I don’t buy for a second that journalists don’t have opinions. They’re human. To say that they are above opinions is just another means for journalists to separate themselves from the public they serve, to act as if they are different, above us. But journalists couldn’t do their jobs if they didn’t have opinions, if they didn’t have a reason to do this story over that, if they didn’t have a goal. Yet this is the fiction some journalists tell when they try to prove they are opinionless by not voting. As far as I’m concerned, that’s only evidence that they are trying to delude themselves or us.

And this year, the media’s role in the Obama wave is an angle of the story that itself warrants reporting. Says Bill Clinton:

The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before. They’ve been active participants in this election.

Don’t you want to know the opinions of the political press? Don’t you want to be able to judge their reporting accordingly? what makes them think that they can and should hide that from us?

* * *

Terence Smith wrote a dead-on column about the delta between negative Hillary and positive Obama coverage:

The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. . . .

And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign’s motivation.

The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a “cackle.” Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as “desperate.” . . .

And on Obama:

By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?

Of course they have.

His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.

On NPR, media watcher David Folkenflik says:

Many reporters admit privately that they feel differently about the two candidates. And there’s a phrase that’s surfaced to described the phenomenon that’s afflicted MSNBC’s [Chris] Matthews: the Obama swoon.

And why should reporters get away with saying that privately? I want a camera in the voting booth with Chris Matthews — he of the too-frequent too-late apologies — to verify the obvious. I want to know how they’re voting.

But some journalists try to evade that legitimate question by not voting, as if that absolves them of opinions and blame. Len Downie, editor of the Washington Post — and by that evidence, a damned good editor he is — has long argued that by not voting he keeps himself pure: “Yes, I do not vote. . . . I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”

Sorry, but I still don’t buy that and I fear that excuse is seeping down to others in his staff. Here is the Post’s Chris Cillizza — a fine political correspondent himself — arguing that not voting makes him objective:

. . . [O]bjectivity in covering these races means that you stay objective before, during and after the contests. As, or perhaps more, importantly, however, is the obsession among some people to sniff out a reporter’s “secret” political leanings. Time and time again, I find people commenting on this blog and elsewhere accusing me of having a pro-Clinton or pro-Obama or pro-McCain or pro-someone else viewpoint. I know in my hearts of hearts that I don’t have any of those biased viewpoints, but if I did vote — even in a local or county election — it would add fuel to the fire of those folks who think I am a secret partisan.

I have to say I smelled some Obama roses blooming in this from Cillizza on Howie Kurtz’ show:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

After a line like that, there is good reason to ask where his heart is. You can stay away from the voting booth but that doesn’t make you into the Tinman.

I agree with John Harris, head of Politico, who calls this a tedious argument — “a subset of the most endless and least satisfying debate in the whole profession: Is true objectivity ever possible?” Harris does vote — sometimes.

It is admirable that [Politico colleagues] Mike and Jim cleave to a scientific ideal of journalistic detachment, the way a surgeon cannot tolerate even the slightest bacteria on his instruments. Their piety on this subject is especially notable in an era when traditional lines governing journalism (or even who counts as a journalist in the first place) have blurred, and many new arrivals to the business don’t care at all about old notions of neutrality and fair-minded presentation.

But Jim is right that I find his obsession a bit silly — and a bit self-deluded. . . .

My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.

But Harris turns around and says he didn’t vote in the primary because he didn’t want to declare a party and then have readers make assumptions about where he stands. So he’s pulling the same trick: He’s trying to hide his opinions. Isn’t that a form of deception by omission? Isn’t it at least coy?

I like his scientific analogy but I’ll take it a different way: A scientist surely has desires. A doctor studying cancer naturally wants to cure it; she’s against cancer. That doctor has opinions and beliefs, hypotheses to prove or disprove. But intellectual honestly will demand disproving a hypothesis that is wrong even if she believed it to be true. One can have opinions and still be factual, fair, honest, truthful. Indeed, it is easier to judge that scientist’s work by knowing what she’s looking for.

Steve Baker of Business Week goes one step farther:

I think it’s impossible for a person who thinks about politics, and cares about it, not to prefer one candidate to another. It’s fine for journalists not to broadcast our political views, but why pretend that we don’t have them? What’s important is to be fair. And if we want to keep our views secret, well that’s why it’s good that voting booths have curtains.. . .

I don’t think either Harris or Baker goes far enough. I believe that journalists should vote. They are citizens — and some get mad at me when I refer to amateurs as citizen journalists because they demand the label, too. They are human, too — they have opinons. They also have ethics that demand that they try to be — repeating the list of verities — fair, honest, complete, intellectually honest and I believe most hold to that. But now add the ethics of transparency and openness — and trust in the public you serve — and I believe that especially this year, journalists owe it to us to tell us what they’re thinking. The only thing worse than an agenda is a hidden agenda.

: I didn’t think it was necessary to append this to every post on the topic but judging by the comments, it couldn’t hurt: I voted for Clinton in the primaries.

Off with their headlines

The Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t know what it got when it hired four local political bloggers to collaborate on a group blog at Cleveland.com (which I oversaw when I was at the parent company). They got citizens with opinions. You’d think that would be obvious. In fact, you’d think that was the goal.

But apparently not, for when one liberal bloggers was found to have backed and contributed to a candidate, he was fired. Then the other liberal quit. Then the paper shut the blog. E&P has the story. Here’s the explanation from the paper’s assistant managing editor for online, Jean Dubail:

As most readers are no doubt aware already, Jeff Coryell is no longer blogging on Wide Open. The reason is simple: When we learned that he had contributed to a particular political candidate, we asked that he refrain from writing about that candidate and his opponent on this blog. Our concern was that since Jeff and the other Wide Open bloggers are paid, his views might be taken as those of the paper, which could raise legitimate questions about our fairness. Jeff was uncomfortable with that restriction, so we felt obligated to end our relationship. It goes without saying that Jeff did nothing wrong. His contributions to Wide Open were first-rate. But clearly I should have anticipated this potential difficulty when we set up the blog, and avoided putting him and us in this position. In that sense, the fault is mine.

Well, indeed. The logic of all this is baffling. The paper knew it was hiring opinionated people. But it didn’t want involved people. That is a “difficulty.”

What we’re really seeing is the view of journalism from inside the cloister of the newspaper: Once you take a dollar from the paper, once you take its communion, you are transformed: You take a vow of political celibacy. You have no opinions and if you do, you hold them to yourself, like impure thoughts. You don’t participate in your community but stand apart from it. And you don’t mingle with those outside the walls who speak the vulgate, blog. So the priests of the paper said that the bloggers were sinners. And they were excommunicated.

Perhaps, having heard Luther’s tap-tapping at the door, the paper would have been wiser to reexamine its own assumptions about its world. Perhaps it should have had a discussion about discussion. Wasn’t there value in bringing in the voices of active, opinionated, caring citizens? Wasn’t that why they did it? Wasn’t the transparency and involvement of these people worth examining and perhaps learning from?

Apparently not.

Here’s a telling line from Dubail’s pronouncement on the blogo closing the blog (pinned with Luther’s nail):

We still believe that newspaper and newspaper Web sites need to engage the new media. Our first effort in that direction obviously didn’t fare well, but it would have been a still greater mistake not to make the attempt.

They think this is “new media.” And they think that’s something they need to try. (I would have hoped they’d have come to that conclusion about 12 years ago.) Of course, it’s not just new media. This should be a new relationship. It should be about discovering and joining in a conversation. I saw another sign of this at the BBC the other day when staffers kept fretting about filling a blog, as if it were a show rundown or a blank page. I told them to stop looking it that way and instead to take the advice I’m giving my students: Find the conversation. Join in. Contribute to it — indeed, contribute journalism, answering questions, finding facts, fact-checking the ones that are there. But to do that — beware — you have to talk at a human level with other humans with opinions (who don’t want to talk to a closed door).

So perhaps what the paper should be doing is not trying to impose its definition of “journalist” on any who receive its dollar but instead rethink that definition themselves.

: See also this post from a year ago contemplating this from the other perspective: what’s the line (if any) between activism and media?