I’ve seen and heard a lot of complaints about media bias this past year, perhaps more than in all my other 36 years as a journalist.
They’re in letters, phone calls and comments on our website and Facebook. Media bias also regularly comes up in the commentaries from around the nation that we publish on these pages.
What has changed is the kind of bias that concerns people, from one that is a fundamental but background concern to a more immediate threat that evokes stronger emotions and demands for action.
For the first half of my career, the dominant complaint about the newspapers where I worked was that they and other media were too negative in their coverage, focusing too much on crime and things going wrong. People said they didn’t show the basic goodness of most of the community or give it a boost often enough.
I’ve always agreed with this view to a degree, but mainly thought such bias is inherent in the service a newspaper provides and in human nature.
People — including reporters, editors and newspaper readers — are interested in what’s different or unusual. Since things like crimes, accidents and disasters are rare in the lives of most people, they’re typically experienced when they happen to others.
Negative stories also offer the practical benefit of highlighting the genuine risks in life. Press readers know the dangerous area roads, the circumstances that may lead to drowning, where and when violent crimes are more likely.
Before I try something new, first I think whether I’ve ever read about it killing or injuring someone. Likewise, news stories have convinced me to be extra careful about cutting trees, climbing ladders or doing electrical work. Working on a car that’s raised with a jack was added to that list for many people last week after reading about it resulting in a local fatality. Like many stories of tragedies and troubles, it was among the most viewed on our website.
Editors, in varying degrees, have been aware of this inherent bias toward covering what’s rare and wrong and addressed it by making sure the newspaper also reports on the wide range of what’s common and good in the community.
That’s an effective solution, made possible and pretty easy in large part because this is a bias everyone shares to a degree. We’re of two minds — looking for problems to avoid or fix but staying open to the daily goodness and beauty of life. We try to resolve it or at least find balance, and a newspaper that touches the whole community helps.
In the second half of my career, complaints have trended toward obsession with a different kind of bias — favoring some political partisans over others.
This too can result from the basic human desire to improve things. Certainly, partisans are convinced their party or ideology would make life better.
But note that in this case the divide is not within each of us but between people. Where media bias in the past was suspected of encouraging everyone to be too negative about their community, now it is suspected of unfairly favoring one group of people over another.
The desire for fairness in how we relate to each other runs deep, so a belief in this sort of bias is much more disturbing.
Partisans already question each other’s motives, so they’re quick to see bad intentions behind any political bias they perceive. Recent complaints have accused media of letting political goals guide coverage decisions, intentionally misleading readers and misusing their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.
Whether real or just perceived, political bias is more damaging than excessive negativity. If people see partisan bias in the media — even if it favors their side — it undermines their belief that journalists are independent, fair and credible.
Partisan bias is also more difficult for the media to address because a way must be found to transcend the divide or balance the interests not within individuals, but across groups of people and society as a whole.
I think the media can and will find an approach that restores public confidence in its credibility and fairness. But to do so it must examine its reason for being and develop principles and practices focused on serving a democratic society.
Email Kevin Post, editorial page editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.