Checking your bias
Do your biases affect your journalism? Field Notes Editor Nicole Blanchett Neheli talks with American J-prof Sue Ellen Christian, and reporters from across Canada, about strategies to ensure every story is as balanced as possible, and how reflection and ethics are the keys to objective reporting.
Everyone has biases. But if you’re a journalist, bias can potentially affect how other people interpret important events and see the subjects you interview.
After teaching for eight years, Sue Ellen Christian became so concerned with her students’ inability to separate beliefs from fact that she began exploring why and how biases are formed. The result is a book (and accompanying website) of reporting best practices aimed at preventing personal prejudice from interfering with accurate storytelling.
Overcoming Bias is a how-to-guide that includes examples from professional journalists about dealing with their own prejudice while working in the field. In one anecdote, a reporter describes how surprised he was to find a poverty-stricken family was actually quite happy, not miserable as he had assumed it would be.
As Christian described it, “Just like we remind ourselves, don’t promise confidentiality to a source without a lot of thinking and vetting, or don’t accept gifts because it might compromise your integrity or your appearance of such...you cannot apply your own standards and your own morays to people who live in a completely different situation than you do.”
The basic premise of the book is that journalists need to find the time to train themselves to look at situations from a variety of perspectives and know that
everyone’s truth is different because their perspectives are different.
David Squires reports for NTV News in St. John's Newfoundland and says working in a smaller market adds a unique layer to dealing with bias because the subjects you interview are often people you know, even friends. Then there is the added concern of the daily news grind:
Trying to turn around a story in a day for an evening newscast, it can be challenging to cover all aspects and express all points. With cuts and VJ work dominating in smaller markets, investigative reporting has faded.
Christian is cognizant that finding time to do justice to a story—never mind reflect on it—isn’t easy for a journalist because she used to be one. She reported for 10 years at the Chicago Tribune and before that at other outlets including the LA Times and The Detroit News: “Nothing I say is meant to be holier than thou, it’s because I love the craft and I have great admiration for it and I want to raise up people who make it even better.”
According to Christian, the best way to do this is to cultivate open minds, both in J-school and professional newsrooms:
- challenge presumed story lines and narratives
- reflect on how bias might affect a story
- look for alternatives to “go-to” sources
- weigh word choices, especially when using terms like terrorist
Sneha Kulkarni, now a reporter/anchor with Sun News Network in Toronto, recognized her personal bias could be an issue while she was covering a story for CTV in Calgary. She was reporting on attempts to stop a methadone clinic from setting up in a neighbourhood strip mall:
I felt sympathetic to the clinic, since I felt that providing additional services, especially in a city with long wait lists, is more important than perpetuating a stigma against addicts. Also, having spent time with the clinic's clients, I felt I was biased to their cause. I tried to push my interviews on the opposing side, more than perhaps I normally would have on this kind of story. At the end of the day, I simply accepted that my job was to report on the facts, regardless of whether I agreed on the opinions being expressed.
Christian believes that existing codes of ethics provide guidelines that “embody a lot of the solutions to our cognitive biases and errors.” For example, accountability is a recognized strategy to check bias, and it’s a pillar of journalism.
Karen Owen, a reporter for 20 years in Calgary, said, “Knowing everyday that my job is to present the facts, both sides of the story, as free of bias as possible, is not really a strategy; it's what every reporter should strive to do. If I truly feel I can't overcome my personal bias, then I ask that I be reassigned. That is a perfectly acceptable strategy, but one that is not often used—so when it is by anyone in the newsroom, the request is respected.”
A good journalist wants to tell a good story—end of story. Acknowledging that bias affects everyone, including those who consider themselves quintessentially objective, is an essential aspect of that process.
As Christian put it, “We are always going to bring ourselves to the story, but I’d like us to bring our best self to the story. A journalist is more prepared through his or her own awareness of our thinking habits to write a more accurate and less distorted news account.”
To hear an excerpt of Nicole Blanchett Neheli's interview with Sue Ellen Christian click below, or read more on bias in reporting on the Redefining Journalism blog.