Yes, the media are biased — in ways you imagine and in several ways you don’t.
But I admitted that in last week’s post, shocking a grand total of none of you, I imagine.
And I did not mean that the media in general are biased; I meant The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in particular, right along with the rest of the big, wide mass of news media.
Now, as promised, I will list and explain some of the ways in which we’re biased. Neither the list nor the explanations are exhaustive, but I think they might help you understand a little more about why we do the things we do. Some of these biases are harmful to our relationships with readers; some of them are actually quite beneficial to them.
Let’s get on with it. We tend to be biased in favor of:
1. Stories that can be accompanied by visuals: This is a huge bias in television reporting, but print media suffer it, too. At the Packet and Gazette, this seldom affects our decisions about what stories to pursue, but it definitely influences decisions about how prominently a story is displayed on the print or web page. As such, this can shade your perception of our reporting, too. We might put more reporting effort and devote more space to the text of a story that runs in the “right rail” — that’s a fairly prominent vertical positioning along the right side of the page — but the reader’s eye will be drawn to the centerpiece right next to it that has a photo and consumes more total real estate.
2. Local impact: A political scandal in Seattle city government isn’t going to get as much play in our paper as a car crash that backs up traffic on Bay Street, even though in the grand scheme the former might have more sweeping effect on the cosmos. Eve, say, a bill before Congress about some arcane but far-reaching regulation won’t typically get better play in our newspaper than the local food festival. Our reasoning is this: We will not ignore regional, national or international stories of broad appeal and impact; however, we consider ourselves first and foremost a local newspaper and a provider of local content few others (or no one else) will provide for you.
3. Stories that affect or interest a lot of readers: This sounds almost too obvious to state, but the tug from people who have narrow but intense interest is mighty. This bias is not iron-clad, but explains why, for example, if we can staff only a Hilton Head Island High School home football game or a Beaufort Academy home football game, we will favor the Seahawks. They are the larger, public school and presumably generate greater interest. This also explains why news about golf, military and tourism tend to be played more prominently and pursued more frequently in our local coverage than they might be in a town with no golfers, no bases and no visitors.
4. Stories for which we have advanced notice: I think this is true among all media, but it is definitely a factor in a small newsroom such as ours, where everyone stays busy and we strive to keep it that way. This is not to say we won’t drop everything when a really big story hits — we have and will. But an event that is otherwise newsworthy might not get covered if we get only 12 hours notice for a shindig organizers have been planning for six months, particularly if it means displacing from our coverage schedule something we’ve already planned. The reality is this bias will only grow larger if our resources get smaller — no one has idle minutes spent doing nothing other than waiting for a good story to walk in the door, and advance planning helps us prepare robust print and online packages that are difficult for a thinly stretched crew to assemble on the fly.
5. Cooperative/familiar sources: Now we stray into this-is-uncomfortable-to-admit territory. The plain fact is that sources who have been forthcoming, forthright and friendly probably get a little more deference from us. That’s not to say any source is shielded from criticism — we’ve indeed written harsh things about people we’ve been inclined to view favorably — or that with a simple phone call, a nice guy can order up coverage — we’ve told them no, too. We’re talking small increments here, but at the risk of mangling a metaphor, people get better coverage with honey than vinegar.
As adjunct to this, we also tend to prefer “officialdom.” There is benefit in this — namely that it is important for us to bring you the views of people with knowledge of issues and/or the authority to impact them. The downside is that you hear a lot about what councilmen think about this ordinance or that but, if we’re not careful, little from the people who are most directly affected by their decisions.
6. Bad news: We actually write far more “positive” or “good news” stories than we get credit for. The sports and features section are full of them, and we’re as proud as we can be of columnist David Lauderdale’s largely inspiriting work. Yet, I also know that — particularly from a writing standpoint — there’s something about the texture of things gone awry that is irresistible. This can be incredibly exploitative, but this is an urge not entirely lacking in utility, either — if a tornado or hurricane strikes, for example, along with an inventory of devastation comes a lot of useful information that will prevent more suffering. And there’s something didactic about watching the way people handle bad situations.
Both providers and consumers of information might feel guilty about bad news, yet we gravitate to it. This explains why surveys so often indicate people are “fed up” with all the “negative” news, yet crime reports and stories about political and business scandal drive circulation and page views in numbers that are not to be ignored.
7. Change: One might find a good story or two by examining the status quo, but true to its etymological root, “news” typically gravitates toward things that are, well, new. “Change,” in other words. Business owners sometimes struggle to understand this. They might wonder why a new competitor’s grand opening gets mention in editorial space but nothing is written about a long-standing business — one that perhaps might also be a long-standing advertiser with us. We certainly try to keep needless thumbs out of the eyes of advertisers, and I certainly can understand their viewpoint. However, the fact remains they buy “face time” with our readers through their display and classified ads, not dispensation in news coverage. Editorial space is a service aimed at readers, and advertisers (at least in the aggregate) ultimately benefit only if we serve those readers well.
8. Conflict: This goes a little deeper than salacious human attraction to a good fight — although that certainly explains some of it. I think most journalists see themselves as arbiters and believe they belong in the middle of a conflict. Conflict-driven coverage can be unseemly, and it can cause us to overlook genuine news where there is accord. But keeping people apprised of disagreement and conflict also is a valuable service, particularly to those who have a dog in the fights we cover.
9. Government and officialdom: We love government coverage. We read agendas with relish. We tout our role as government watchdogs. We thrive on our proximity to power. This is both blessing and curse. We keep an eye on folks who can coercively seize your wealth and subject you to the laws they make. But sometimes, this can be dreadfully boring business — run-of-the-mill stories about council meetings are lullabies to many readers. We sometimes forget there is a larger community and that government is not the umbrella under which all things reside (or at least, the federalist in me says it shouldn’t.) There is a more pragmatic motivation for this bias, too — the need to produce copy. A reporter knows they can always crank out a narrative from any old council subcommittee meeting. An afternoon in a coffee shop chatting up “regular folks” might produce a spectacular story ... or nothing at all.
10. Liberal politics: This is the one many of you probably were eager to see if I would include. Well, I am. This probably should be the subject of its own blog post because it is multi-faceted and far more complex than many knee-jerk right-wingers comprehend.
Suffice it to say, this bias doesn’t reign everywhere or all the time. But there’s something to it, and I’ll provide my thoughts in next week’s post.