In my time as editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily, there was no more consistent criticism of our page than the constant cries of “bias.” We would try to explain to critics that bias is kind of a necessity on opinion pages — without it there wouldn’t be too many opinions to speak of. But the epithet of bias is much harder to shake when leveled at facially objective news organizations, or divisions of a newspaper that are supposed to be about “just-the-facts” — like the Daily’s news section.
Having considered the question for a long time, I continue to believe that most news stories mean well. Even in the age of Fox News and the cable news infotainment explosion, it’s important to remember that most news outlets that purport to be unbiased really do try to live up to that billing.
For example, when NBC was owned by General Electric, and the latter was building planes for the American war effort, NBC’s news division faced criticism for its apparent pulling of punches when it came to reporting the true disaster of the war in Iraq. It made for an intriguing story, but it’s simply not sensible to believe that an organization that employed Keith Olbermann for all those years was somehow not critical enough of the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq.
Commenting on a story in the Daily last week, however, a reader reminded me of a significant additional nuance to the bias-in-news argument: There is some degree of advocacy in every news story, whether it’s explicit enough to annoy the average reader or not. Even a simple decision on what to deem newsworthy enough to publish is a biased decision driven by, and reinforcing, a particular worldview.
And with that contention (which I think rings true), I turn my attention to a story that appeared in this paper last week: “To professors’ dismay, students still use RateMyProfessors.com,” 11/28/2011. The focus of the story was a website that we’re all familiar with — and the potential problems students and professors face when students rely on that website for information about courses. While the story did disclose that the Daily operates a competing website (maizeandbluereview.com), several people expressed to me some discomfort with the story.
The main point I think the average reader would take away from that news story is that RateMyProfessors is often inaccurate (given its penchant for extremist reviews by outlying students), and students would be better informed about the suitability of classes if they could look at the University’s own course evaluations, which are more detailed, though not always easily available. The Daily’s competing website makes those University course evaluations more accessible to students, thereby seemingly being the solution to the problem the story points out.
Perhaps some readers will find that to be a convenient enough outcome to indicate something sinister, but I disagree. The actual answer is simple: The thesis of the story (that RateMyProfessors is bad) is obvious and widely known. And the Daily provides course evaluations on Maize & Blue Review not because there is some gold mine there to be tapped, but rather because it is a simple and obvious student service, the likes of which this paper should engage in.
But that’s not to say that no issue remains. Ultimately it cannot be denied that the Daily wrote a news story that pushed readers into a view that reinforces a competing service provided by this newspaper. What I want to suggest, however, is that isn’t always a bad thing. The only alternatives the Daily would have had are to: 1) not create a website like Maize & Blue Review, which would mean there is less information out there for students — an undesirable outcome, or 2) not write about the significant shortcomings of the most popular professor and course review website — another undesirable outcome, given that students care about such issues.
The Daily in this case avoided both of those silly alternatives and picked what I think is the most sensible course: Write the story, have it say what needs to be said, and provide full disclosure.
Sarcastically extrapolating a common conservative complaint, Stephen Colbert famously said, “Reality has a liberal bias.” That comedic observation hits home because it hints just enough truth. Some stories need to be written, even if writing them pushes readers toward a certain viewpoint. This isn’t egregiously biased journalism, rather, it’s an inevitability for a paper trying to do its job. And there’s no use denying it or hiding it — all we can do is explain it.