Discussion of the coverage of Ferguson provoked a number of comments on my Facebook page regarding media bias, and while I have to agree there is “bias” in reporting, it’s usually not the kind people mean when they use the word.
Despite what some people think, I’ve never encountered a newsroom discussion of how to slant an article along ideological lines. If anything, the discussion will center around how to anticipate reader reaction to stories likely to provoke ideological response. People think we support the Democrat? Then we’d better make sure Republican responses get plenty of ink. We know that if readers don’t think we’re being fair, we have little chance of informing them.
But that’s not to say media bias doesn’t exist. Bias is part of the human condition, after all. We all like stories of the little guy struggling against the big machine. And we are — rightly, I think — always suspicious of official pronouncements and conventional wisdom. Reporters, though, by training and inclination, know enough to set aside their own opinions while reporting. If anything, I think there’s a tendency for journalists to go out of their way to be fair to the side they think is in the wrong. Certainly, as an editor, I always challenge them to do so.
Media bias, I believe, is a more subtle matter of how we are trained to write and report. Stories need a focus, most often a single individual, and it’s always debatable how much you can generalize from a single instance. In Ferguson, critics say we are generalizing where we shouldn’t, that we are covering the story differently than if Michael Brown had been white.
I don’t buy it. Police shootings are news, no matter what races are involved. And so are protests. Ferguson is big news, not because of who was shot, but because of the reaction to shooting. And we need to ask ourselves if Ferguson is representative of bigger issues — whether they be a growing divide between police and citizenry or the opportunism of a relative handful of protesters.
Those issues are touched upon in an excellent thought piece in the Washington Post. Closer to home, we’ve asked local law enforcement what lessons they draw from the far-away streets of Missouri.
Yes, you can choose to ignore the coverage, dismissing it as media bias. But what does that say about your own biases? The issues of freedom, equality and security raised by Ferguson have always been central to the American experience, and always will be. Ignore them — or wish them away as slanted coverage — at your own risk.