Friday, June 13, 2008

Continuing the Conversation Here, So I Don't Hog Space

On Frontburner today, D Magazine publisher Wick Allison posted this item about the possible death of newspapers. A lot was said, and one commenter insisted that there was there was a liberal bias in all media, effectively tarring us all with the same brush. It's not a complaint unfamiliar to those of us who have been journalists for any length of time. As I shot back today, for every five letters a publication gets complaining that there is a liberal bias, it gets five more insisting the paper favors conservatives. It's not a pat answer, either. I used to keep a clipping book of stories about Democrats and stories about Republicans for one paper I edited - on purpose. Inevitably, I'd get someone that would come in and insist I favored one over the other, and I'd pull the book out, and have them count. Hard to argue with such concrete evidence. I'm never surprised that those who've never stepped foot inside a newsroom would believe that a journalist could not keep his or her personal politics out of a story. But what surprised me was what a fellow journalist said there:
While very few would cop to it, it’s a ’60s-throwback, baby-boomer world-view that you could sum up like this: Government action good; greedy businesspeople bad; guns bad; abortion not good, but not really that bad; religious people scary, and on and on. I mean, look at all the polls showing 80% or 90% of newspeople are Democrats. This mentality affects the stories that are chosen and the way they’re written, and it’s part of the reason readers are leaving.
According to Fair and Accurateness in Reporting, most journalists are actually more centerist in their politics, and even lean more conservatively on some things than the general public. Yes, those numbers are from 1998, but I doubt the numbers have changed that drastically in 10 years. Yes, there is a more recent Pew study that says journalists identify themselves as liberals, but I'm with Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, who wrote as NPR Ombudsman that he hoped Pew would try the study again - for the reasons he mentioned, and with perhaps a bigger pool of participants. Yes, it is true that a 1996 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey said more journalists say they're Democrats than Republicans. What I found most interesting was that a separate section of that same survey said editorial writers (who are usually the subject of the most vitriol and accusations of liberal bias) statistically, are more likely to be independent or conservative than elsewhere in the newsroom. "The writers of opinion are more diverse and balanced in their ideologies than the newsroom staff, " the survey said. If a journalist personally identifies himself or herself as liberally-leaning, does it mean that he or she cannot write a fair and balanced story? If so, does it meant that only astronauts should write about space, that only someone who has never held a baby should write about cases such as, say Dena Schlosser? There are all kinds of things that can taint - if allowed - our reporting. It's our training and ethics that prevents such a thing from happening. Most journalists I know - and I have had the pleasure of even meeting several at this city's paper of record as well - are deeply invested in presenting the fairest account of the day possible. Even the op-ed page is a delicate balance of what I like to think of as averages of opinions. They are completely aware that veering too far to the left or the right will cost them not only readers but credibility. Many have various stances on this. I know some that even refuse to vote at all - I even knew an ethics prof at the University of Arkansas J-school who actively advocated that very thing. My first editor felt you could, but who you voted for shouldn't be discussed in the newsroom. Yard signs, buttons and bumper stickers, of course, were verboten, as was fraternizing with campaign workers. Me? I always thought that as long as neither side could really figure out where I was leaning, then my job was done - even if it meant driving to a Republican fish fry at one end of Fannin County, staying as long as humanly possible and then burning rubber on 30 miles of bad road to get to a Democratic barbecue at the other end of the county on time. And I do agree with some of the commenters - every paper of size does need an ombudsman. I, for one, love how Clark Hoyt keeps the Grey Lady honest on a regular basis. So do I think that the "liberal" media caused the demise of newspapers? No. Because if that were the case, television would be turned off, too, or Fox would be experiencing record ratings. What is making newspapers an endangered species, then? Two words: Poor planning. Five more: Newspapers thought they were invincible. As I said today in the conversation on Frontburner, newspapers were not as a whole quick to anticipate and hop on to the possibilities involving the Internet. Marketing strategies that should’ve been in place years ago to attract and assure advertisers that they could get a return on investment on the Web and the print product just didn’t happen. Bottom line, we didn’t get consumers and advertisers to become early adopters of a fully-integrated online/print advertising strategy because we weren’t early adopters. I know this thing is hellaciously long, but I drove home tonight still thinking about what was said today. There are so many hard-working reporters - the rank and file - out there who get up every morning thinking of how they're going to inform, and go home at night hoping they did just that. That is their sole agenda - with no skew involved. If you're a journalist who can't keep your politics out of your reporting, that's fine and well. But do the rest of us a favor - don't throw us under the bus when you cop to it.