Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bias at the heart of journalism

By Meghan Devine, md312606@ohio.edu

Yesterday a student in my Advanced PR Principles class made a remark that I thought merited some discussion. We were talking about bias in journalism, and she said that public relations practitioners should be biased to their client, or else they wouldn’t be doing their job. Now, most PR people probably wouldn’t have the guts to make such a bold statement, but once she said it I realized there is some truth to it. After all, one of the most important roles of PR is to make someone look good in the eye of the public, right? Chances are that if you actually like the client’s product or company, you’ll wind up doing more effective campaigns for them.

The idea that bias can be positive in some areas goes against the very idea of journalism, which is to provide facts and news in a straightforward, unbiased manner. This article from HubPages talks about the causes of media bias, saying “Advertising and spin control tactics by PR firms are two ways that the media is manipulated outright.” So here it seems that they’ve demarcated a line with the media on one side, and advertising and PR on the other. I can’t say I disagree—if the purpose of PR and advertising is to favor their clients, then are they still forms of journalism? I suppose that depends on how broadly you define journalism—Merriam-Webster can’t even make up its mind on the definition. Can journalism be both “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without and attempt at interpretation” as well as “writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest”? I honestly think it’s nearly impossible to be void of bias in the field of journalism.

This website gives a great example of the propensity for bias in newswriting: “Advocacy begins with the choice of stories to cover. When you cover the "controversial" Arizona immigration law with great attention and give very little attention to stories that reflect badly on immigrants, you exhibit bias even though no clear advocacy has been shown. Of course, the media will argue that they cover the "newsworthy" stories. This is convenient cover when you get to decide yourself what is and isn't newsworthy.”

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