Something else that skews the news

June 29, 1996|By Hal Piper

IN THIS SPACE recently I wrote that while journalists, like anyone else, have their opinions and biases, these are to some extent controlled by the reporters' training and by the counter-agenda -- making money -- of the tycoons in the board room.

The kind of biased reporting that makes you look back later and wince, I suggested, often comes from expert wisdom that is subsequently repudiated -- like what doctors used to say about the nature and cause of homosexuality.

Now, here's something else that skews the news: reader bias -- the reader's refusal to read a newspaper for what's actually there, but instead for confirmation of the reader's own firmest convictions.

An amusing example was on my voicemail this week. An anonymous woman complained that an article about managed medical care, by William L. Jews, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, was opinion, not reporting, and shouldn't have been printed.

Well, of course it was opinion. Mr. Jews was writing in Perspective -- the Sunday opinion section. But for the anonymous woman, the article confirmed her bias that The Sun was departing from ''objectivity'' -- again.

Many readers believe that The Sun is scanting the various ''Whitewater'' stories, and many others believe we are hyping them. Both sides mail in lists of stories that weren't in the paper, or were buried on inside pages, and allegedly should have been on Page One, or vice-versa. Reporters and editors can only use their best judgment, knowing that some people will never be satisfied.

In other cases, however, reader bias actually may affect how we do our jobs. I've been reading a new book, ''The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire,'' by the veteran foreign correspondent (and my onetime college roommate) Fred Coleman. It turns out that the Soviet Union in the 1960s and '70s really was an Evil Empire. We Moscow correspondents knew it back then, but it's easier to write it now. I think this is not the triumphalism of hindsight, but because at the time we were restrained by the problem of the partisan reader.

My mother once asked me if it were true that Russians had to stand in long lines for food.

''Mom,'' I wailed, ''didn't you read my articles?''

''Well, yes, of course,'' she said, ''but I didn't know whether that was just propaganda.''

Grimly, I assured her that Russians did, indeed, have to stand in lines.

Independent minds

And I learned the lesson that you can only write the story as far as people are willing to read it. Independent-minded readers -- even mothers -- in those Cold War times were justifiably skeptical of the rhetoric being flung around. A reporter who told too much truth about the dreariness of Soviet life risked being seen as ''too negative'' and losing credibility

It's a matter of context. To describe the appalling conditions in an average Russian hospital now evokes pity in an American, and a desire to help. To describe the same conditions then, when Russians were rivals, seemed like Cold War sniping -- and besides, every American knew that the Russians had put men in space, so how bad could the hospitals be?

The professional challenge, of course, is to find ways to slip past the reader's bias and tell the story.

In what other areas does reader bias affect news coverage? I'd nominate some of the subjects shielded by ''political correctness.'' Writing about homelessness, for example, frequently skirts the sin of ''blaming the victim.''

Just as the reader deserves professionalism from the reporter, journalists need good faith from readers. It's the only way both can do their jobs right.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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