Fairness, balance, objectivity, truth, bias… These words get used a lot in discussions of journalistic ethics. But not every journalist (or every ethicist) agrees either on their exact definitions, or on how they fit in to the greater project of journalism.
Most would agree that bias isn’t good. But David Poulson, associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism argues the opposite in a March 6 post at Great Lakes Echo, "Reporting with Bias".
Specifically, he examines bias toward “a clean, sustainable environment”--What is the nature of this kind of bias, and can it coexist with some of the other words mentioned above--truth, fairness, and balance?
“Clean air and water and sustainable communities are worthy goals. I fail to see how acknowledging that is a compromise of journalistic ethics,” Poulson writes. “Perhaps its time for journalists to admit a bias toward a clean, sustainable environment.”
Such a strong statement of bias-acceptance should raise hackles. But it is important to distinguish that Poulson seems to be being pretty specific about what kind of “bias” he is talking about here. He seems to describe a sense of respect for "worthy human goals" based on evidence and investigation, rather than a bias in relation to any single story or single piece of evidence. This sense of “bias” may not automatically imperil ethical journalism. As he argues, under his definition of bias “no one is unbiased.”
“Well, would you say the crime reporter is biased if you overheard her remarking that murder is a poor way to settle a dispute?
“Is it OK for the education reporter to indicate that literacy is a fundamental value and measure of quality of life? Could such a reporter fairly and accurately cover a school strike? I think so.
“I admit that the cleaner water and air become, the better off I am. I favor the stuff. Environmental journalists should feel no shame in such an admission, or even if such values influence the angles they take when reporting.”
The key here, Poulson writes, is that a “biased” journalist must still keep their mind open to being proved wrong. The environmental group on which you are reporting might turn out to be financially insolvent, the new green technology may be doing more bad than good, the argument against protecting a plant in favor of feeding a family may turn out to be persuasive. As a journalist you have to be ready and willing to find these things out.
“The key is for journalists to manage those biases and to be transparent about them,” he writes.
Meanwhile, there is also sense in Poulson’s description of environmental bias that in some way, what he is describing here is not even what most people would call “bias.” After all, if reporters are wide open to changing their minds based on evidence, or as Poulson says, to "challenge assertions or weigh the relevant merits and costs," can we really call their stance a bias?
Strong bias is often described as a quality much more impervious to evidence or context than what Poulson seems to be talking about--bias is what causes reporters to insist on a frame that doesn’t fit the story or ignore evidence that doesn’t support their view. Poulson writes that he encourages environmental journalists to embrace their bias toward environmental protection. But he also asks them to keep their minds open and to challenge their beliefs.
All reporters should be reporting with a “bias” toward scientific evidence. And, as Poulson writes, should keep other biases--all deeply held principles that might factor in their journalism--open to being disproved.