Oxymoron: Fair and Balanced Reportage

Photo Jan 04, 7 38 44 AM“Unbiased reporting” is the exception, not the rule. The yellow press has always been with us because there is always a bias.

Always.

The commercial news services including television, radio and newspapers do not serve the public. They serve themselves, their employees, their board of directors and most especially their stockholders. And as the dwindling page count in my morning printed newspaper clearly demonstrates, survivors must deliver what the public will pay for and, lacking that, they go away.

News services are for-profit endeavors and, as such, the draw of sensationalism and extremism will always win out over reasoned thought. Spectacular disasters sell. That’s why there is the concept of a “front page” or a “lead story” – it’s news, big news, and people will pay to find out what happened.

But what about those that are not big enough for the front page? Try page two, or the second section, or the back page. And if you still don’t find that story, then the editor didn’t think it was newsy enough for their general readers. It doesn’t rate. Sorry.

Or what about those seemingly insignificant details such as the hair color of the shooting victim’s wife? Or what she had for lunch? If the story is too long and space is needed for some other hot story, those “seemingly insignificant details” are cut. Does it matter that, months later in court she says she smelled the odor of rat poison in the lunch her husband had prepared and, when she confronted him he grew violent and she had to protect herself?

Which details should the editor keep?

It’s a judgement call.

And therein lies the inevitable, the unavoidable bias.

Someone must pick and choose which stories to cover, which details to include because there’s no way to compress everything that happened in every moment in every place in the world into a half-hour newscast.

Someone has to apply judgement and, with commercial news services, that judgement falls toward what will attract readers and viewers. It has to or the news service dies.

Instead, look to places where profit is not a motive.

Blogs, for example, are where independents are free to speak their piece and write what interests them. You read in a “blog” (Web log) and see in a “vlog” (Video log) what the author thinks. There is no money to be made. Altruism reigns supreme!

Or does it?

Blogs and vlogs with advertisements or the sponsorship of institutions may be suspect. Money is, after all, the ultimate seductress. Blogging isn’t expensive but, when a following appears, corporate sponsors start knocking at the door to be let in, and they’re waving money.

Even if there’s no money to be had, writers like to be read. Should a writer write what he wants or what his reader’s want?

Which stories will a blogger write and which will he/she skip? Again, it’s a judgement call. Will it be some incident at the supermarket, a crazy driver on the street, something about a homeless person at the drive-through at In-N-Out Burger or some deep emotion from long ago, provoked by a passing word from a stranger?

Which parts of the story are relevant? Readers won’t read a 5,000 word rambling blog full of irrelevant — they think — details. So the blogger must exercise judgement, sometimes severe judgement, and ruthlessly cut extraneous detail, wordy passages and those interesting but otherwise unimportant side notes.

Bias increases as the number of contributors to a blog decreases. A large number of contributors may average out individual biases but the single-author blog, such as this one, will feature only one person’s view of reality.

Am I nuts? Is my writing the “manifesto” of a deranged lunatic?

Hopefully you don’t think so.

But perhaps, just perhaps, I am a little bit warped.

Aren’t we all?

All writing, reportage included, must pick and choose. In that very act is bias. We are biased toward what we think is important, and away from what we think is not. While quality reporting may strive for a “fair and balanced” viewpoint, ultimately, they are subject to the same pressures of time, space and money.

You can’t report everything. You have to choose. And therein, the bias will show.

But you can trust me.

Honest!

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