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October 22, 2007

Newsbusters' 20 Years Of Media Bias Retrospective Opens With A Doozy

A Ted Turner produced "documentary" about the Soviet Union -- back when there was a Soviet Union, in 1988 -- is a must-listen jaw-dropper.

In only 43 seconds, they tell the tale.

"The right to religious freedom is enshrined in the Soviet Constitution?"



And... This is a good call from a journalist for other journalists to finally admit their biases -- in order to correct them and insure that their pieces don't end up as biased as they are as people. Of course it will be ignored.

everal years ago during a leadership seminar at Poynter, one of the participants approached me during a break.

"Can I tell you something about myself?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.

"I'm a conservative," she said as we walked past the library and the rows of books about journalism –- good, bad and ugly.

"And I'm the only one in my newsroom."

She paused, and before I could respond, added: "And none of the others know it. I wouldn't dare tell them. I'd never hear the end of it."

How about your newsroom? Would this editor feel comfortable revealing her political ideology to you and your colleagues?

Are you sure?

* * *

Learn more about leadership in one of our seminars.

Read Leading Lines, a regular Poynter Online column about leadership.

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I have two proposals:

First, I propose that it's time for journalists to stop wasting the precious few moments we have on this earth by denying that we are biased.

We just are. We're human. Besides, bias is not a dirty word. My biases, after all, help define me. And if I'm vigilant, they won't define my work.

But to be as vigilant as possible, I need help. Thus my second proposal:

Let's make our newsrooms safe for journalists to acknowledge their biases as a first step toward using them to improve our staff's work.

Let me explain.

On a day in August when I was in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to talk with the staff of The Oak Ridger about journalistic bias, another newsroom made news on Romenesko. Several members of The Seattle Times staff, responding to the announcement of Karl Rove's resignation, broke into cheers during the news meeting. The outburst prompted Executive Editor David Boardman to remind the staff in a memo to "keep your personal politics to yourself."

I agree with Boardman that partisan cheerleading among journalists is inappropriate. And I was impressed by something else he wrote in a memo to the staff:

"One of the advances of which I'm most proud over the years is our willingness to question and challenge each other as we work to give our readers the most valuable, meaningful journalism we can."

I've never worked in the Times newsroom, but I like the atmosphere Boardman described: a roomful of journalists so committed to the pursuit of excellent journalism that they're willing to challenge one another's assumptions, question one another's assertions, help one another acknowledge -– and compensate for -– their blind spots.

Now, what's the best way to achieve that atmosphere?

I ask that because my experiences –- and the last decade's newsroom scandals –- tell me that dynamic is not often at work. Journalists don't challenge each other nearly enough.


What does it take to create an atmosphere in which everyone in the newsroom can feel comfortable enough with their views -- or in their skin -- to speak out on behalf of fairness, accuracy, better journalism?

Boardman's right: We don't get that atmosphere by engaging in partisan outbursts. But I can't help thinking what an opportunity was squandered in that conservative editor's newsroom because she felt too insecure to say to her colleagues, "Listen, I have a problem with this story. I happen to share this person's point of view, and I can help you understand it. I can help you avoid faulty assumptions, if you want to do that."


Can we master an admittedly difficult balancing act: how to bring our whole selves -- biases and all -- to the office, and put them to good use on behalf of better journalism?

To do that, a newsroom leader needs to start with an honest assessment of the room's diversity: not just how much diversity exists, whether it be political, racial, ethnic, lifestyle, whatever, but how safe it is for people to express their differences.

* Can they trust that their questions and observations won't be dismissed or ridiculed?
* Can they trust that their colleagues are open to different points of view?
* Can they trust that they won't be labeled troublemakers –- or, in the current vernacular of pop management circles –- assholes?

Sure they can, you say. In my newsroom, everyone is invited, encouraged, expected to speak up.

I hope you're right. But you might want to check.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

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posted by Ace at 03:32 PM

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