The Long Way Home 12.16.22

 Is it really possible that news reporting could be free of bias?

“Just the facts Ma’am,” is the oft-quoted line of Sergeant Joe Friday, played by the actor Jack Webb as a Los Angeles cop on the television show “Dragnet.” But a report in a newspaper, magazine, radio, or television could never contain all the facts of a particular story. So the reporter and her editors select stories they think the audience wants to see and then select the facts deemed most relevant to tell the story that will fit into the time or space available.

I’ve seen stories published about issues that are important to me and I know they did not contain all the facts. Not because of deliberate bias, but because no popular media journalist could have a full understanding of any issue. Let’s say trucking and logistics. Important industry for sure, but not something people generally understand. Even those working in it.

So a journalist usually makes the mistake of reporting what they think are both sides of an issue. It fits our worldview to think there are just two sides to every story. That’s why you see articles on politics that quote both a Republican and a Democrat. The story becomes “he said and the other guy said.” 

After years of therapy, I learned that there are at least three sides to every story. Yours. Mine. And the truth.

James R. Schlesinger, US Secretary of Defense under Richard Nixon, said in 1975 that “Everybody is entitled to his own views, Everybody is not entitled to his own facts.” One reason for doubting the objectivity of a news story is that we know there are facts that are not reported and it can really piss us off.

Despite the deification of past reporters and news readers like Walter Cronkite, the idea that they were somehow completely objective and reporters today are not is a myth. Cronkite was a reporter during the years of World War II and rose to the anchor chair on CBS News in the 1960s. He came into our homes with his deep voice and sincere eye contact and read the news gathered and reported by others. He was very good at what he did and was seen as the most trusted man in the news.

But he was still a man, working on deadlines. He wasn’t perfect.

Reporters come from different backgrounds, cultures, and education. They may be overworked and underpaid. They have good days and bad ones just like the rest of us. The most effective are good storytellers, like Cronkite.

Consider a local reporter, likely someone without a formal journalism education, who is covering the machinations of your county board of commissioners or city council. The reporter attends public meetings, usually a couple of hours or more, and tries to find enough news to write a few hundred-word stories. With agenda in hand, they listen to the ramblings of elected officials and staff to find a quote or two that will tell the story. Then they’ll follow up on the issue with a couple of other people to get more facts. Odds are if you attend the same meeting you will feel like the reporter just didn’t get it.

And that is because you have a bias too.

Whether a reader or a journalist, it is just not possible to be completely objective.

Your best bet is to get your news from more than one source, knowing that something is missing from each report. Then you can say, like the late Walter Conkrite did every night, “And that’s the way it is.”