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What is neutrality bias, and why do we need to address it?

Posted on: September 15, 2021

In this blog, Gina Baleria, author of The Journalism Behind Journalism , explores neutrality bias and asks how student journalists can learn to tackle unconscious bias in their reporting.

A deeply held assumption in the U.S. is that journalism is (or should be) an objective, neutral purveyor of the events around us. I should be able to click through my news source, my social media feed, or my newsletters and count on an unbiased, objective account of whichever story is being presented - ie, a view from nowhere.

But neutral, unbiased, and objective are things that humans cannot actually achieve. Every one of us comes from somewhere, and that somewhere, in part, informs our work. The challenge for journalism and media educators is to balance expectations of objectivity with the realities of doing good journalism.

This expectation that a journalist be objective and unbiased took hold in the U.S. in the early-to-mid 20th century, and while we of course don’t want to teach our journalism students to act as public relations agents - i.e. representing and pushing the agenda and narrative of a specific entity - we cannot expect any human to achieve individual neutrality or objectivity. Why? Because humans are, by nature, biased. This is why we want to teach our budding journalists to adhere to a journalistic process, which seeks to vet and verify information, interview sources, and get at the truth.

The so-called view from nowhere in journalism is, in itself, a bias, which can actually damage a journalist’s credibility. The News Literacy project defines Neutrality Bias as “a type of bias in which a journalist or news outlet tries so hard to avoid appearing biased that the coverage actually misrepresents the facts.”

Instead of demanding neutrality or objectivity from our journalism students, I argue here and in my book that we should instead teach them how to provide context, because context can help us achieve understanding.

What is Bias?

Bias is an inherent part of being human, and none of us can fully transcend our humanity. The problems come when we don’t examine our biases and thus believe our view really does come from nowhere. This can happen when people don’t have a full understanding that their beliefs and perspectives are informed by individual experiences. We need to help our students understand that others may have different, but also valuable, perspectives based on a different set of experiences.

Psychology Today defines bias as “a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone,” a “cognitive shortcut.” We all have this inclination. It was developed throughout our evolution as a way to protect us as we navigate our world. The definition goes on to read:

Some biases are positive and helpful—like choosing to only eat foods that are considered healthy or staying away from someone who has knowingly caused harm. But biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance. Whether positive or negative, such cognitive shortcuts can result in prejudgments that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.

It’s this last bit that we lament in journalism. But to avoid prejudging, discriminating, or stereotyping, the solution is not to remove bias. Rather, it is to teach students how to recognize and acknowledge their biases, and then to seek out other perspectives.

Journalists should absolutely report the facts as they exist, but this alone will not help audiences understand why the story is important and how it affects them.

What is Context?

New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones said on the 1A Podcast that “Journalism is not stenography. We don’t simply say, ‘Donald Trump said this. Nancy Pelosi said this.’ That should not be our role. Our role should actually be at getting at the truth and providing context and analysis so people understand what this means.”

The “what this means” is the context needed in journalism to help audiences achieve understanding, and it may help students to see the “somewhere” that journalists in history have come from. For example, 

  • Ida B. Wells, who wrote passionately about lynchings, came from a perspective of watching her friends, loved ones, and neighbors killed horrifically based on false accusations and without trial in front of a jury of peers.
  • Walter Cronkite, when discussing the U.S. role in Vietnam at the end of a CBS news broadcast , threw objectivity and neutrality aside and drew upon his experience covering wars and visiting Vietnam - ie: his view from somewhere. This led him to tell the nation, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion…. It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
  • And, CNN Correspondent Sara Sidner broke into tears live on the air as she covered yet another COVID-19 story about people dying, saying “we’re literally killing each other” - not because she lost her journalistic chops, but because she was trying to convey important information to the public and was moved to tears by the gravity of the situation and the vital imperative to communicate it.

In each of these examples, journalists were trying desperately and with sincere and deep passion to provide context to their audiences to help increase public awareness and understanding. Did these journalists take “the view from nowhere”? No, they each came from somewhere - from their own lived experiences, paired with a journalistic process of vetting information, investigating, interviewing sources, and synthesizing what they gathered.

The question we need to ask is: were they journalistic? To that, I answer YES, thanks to their process. They informed, provided context, and gave the public information needed to navigate their world.

What is a Journalist for? Defining the Goals of Journalism

Each of the award-winning journalists mentioned above put their experiences, observations, and research through a journalistic process. They acknowledged and examined their biases and measured them against the evidence they had gathered. Their goal, always, was to inform and enlighten - to offer why the story matters in an effort to help the public gain a deeper understanding, so that the public could decide what to do about it and how to deal with it. This can be a tricky balance to teach journalism students, but we must take on the challenge.

When we discuss the ideals of journalism, we say things like:

“Hold power to account”

“Speak truth to power”

“Serve as the Fourth Estate”

“Shine a light on an issue”

“Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”

These oft-used quotes do not conjure up someone who is simply regurgitating the facts and presenting a he-said-she-said version of events. Instead, they conjure up a crusader seeking to make the world a better place, maintain balance between the powerful and the powerless, and enlighten the public about information, activities, and context that could affect people.

These quotes, by their very nature, demand that journalists have a view from somewhere.

The journalism that often wins awards and is lauded tends to involve an explicit view from somewhere.

Everyday journalism also comes from somewhere, but unfortunately, we sometimes lose sight of that fact. That somewhere, when unexamined, is often the somewhere of the mainstream, dominant society. In the U.S., that would be the white, male, cis-gendered, able-bodied, upper-middle class demographic.

For example, when a white male reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted on social media about the #BLM riots, he was given a warning over violating the paper’s social media policy but allowed to keep working. However, a Black reporter who posted something similar around the same time was taken off the story. His actions were seen as a reasonable deviation from his usual unbiased self, while hers were seen as bias inherent to her being. It was only after the union spoke up that the male reporter received the same consequence.

I often ask my students whether they think a particular story is for them - whether they see themselves in the story or feel like the journalist is talking to them. Often, the answer is no. This helps them see that a particular journalist may have come from somewhere without even realizing it, thus rendering a story tone deaf or incomplete - falling short of its journalistic mandate.

Using Bias in Service of Journalism

For journalists, bias plays a role in nearly every aspect of story coverage, whether we acknowledge it or not. Bias influences the stories journalists choose to cover; the sources they choose to interview or include - or exclude; the words chosen to tell a story; the chosen visuals; the time and space allotted; and the placement of the story on the page, on the website, or in the newscast.

We must help students understand that being journalistic, in part, means acknowledging and working against our own unique biases. If I am only talking to official sources about stories impacting people in the community, then I have allowed unconscious bias to lead to a blindspot in my reporting. I need to do the work of seeking out community members and organizations, so that their voices are also heard. If I am only talking to people who agree with me about a certain issue, or who have a similar background to mine, then I am surely missing important other perspectives and stories.

We can mitigate our biases by:

 

  • Taking the time to figure out what our biases are and acknowledging them
  • Talking with colleagues who have different perspectives to test whether we have a blind spot on a given story
  • Diversifying our pool of sources in multiple ways, including gender, gender-identity, race, ethnicity, ability, political leaning, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status, and region.
  • Listening to and championing story ideas posed by colleagues of color.
  • Reading, watching, and listening to news from credible sources who come at stories from different perspectives.

Critics often believe that this discussion means that journalists might throw facts out the window and turn into pundits. However, the opposite is true. We’ve already got pundits and talk show content where we expect to see journalism. Let’s give this a try with the hope that those who are learning to practice journalism can get back to the work of informing the public, holding power to account, shining a light on important issues, and providing context, so audiences can achieve understanding.