The bias too close to see

January 02, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Timorous after having been hammered for years by cries from the right of leftist bias, and hampered by a simple-minded understanding of objectivity that gives sober attention to cranks and zanies, American journalism often winds up serving a bland gruel.

But those cries of political bias (which often boil down to "You're not biased in the direction I prefer") are exaggerated and far from the whole story of the limitations of our journalism. The biases are both more widespread and subtler than is generally recognized or acknowledged.

Take, for example, the circumstance that white is the default race in news coverage. The reader assumes that any person mentioned in a news article is white, unless there is some clue, such as a name, or a racial identification to indicate otherwise, and we are told by our stylebooks that racial identifications are to be made only when they are relevant to the subject.

Yes, white culture is still the dominant culture in the United States, but it will be interesting to see whether and how such assumptions alter as white people become a minority.

Class may be a greater source of bias than either politics or race. Journalists used to come from a variety of backgrounds, but today nearly everyone in the business has a college degree (and a major in journalism, which often points to a lack of broad, general knowledge, but that is a topic for another post). College-educated people, a minority in the country, tend to hang out with other college-educated people and tend also to see the world through the lens of the middle or upper-middle class. And middle-class journalists, when they stray from the group, get as wide-eyed as if they had discovered a previously unknown tribe in Borneo.

Even our cliches are redolent of our biases. Cliches, sadly, are inescapable in journalism. Our articles are formulaic, and so in their language; otherwise it would be difficult to turn out the requisite daily volume of copy. But cliches sometimes tell more than the writer intends.

Look at inner city. Once merely a descriptive term to distinguish a core urban area from the surrounding suburbs, it has become a code word for "the place where unemployed black people on welfare, living amid the drug trade and homicides, send their children to bad schools and the penitentiary." 

The inner city is contrasted with the tree-lined streets of leafy suburbs, meaning "the place where affluent white people live and where the writer lives, or would like to."

Contrast leafy suburbs with any place described as hardscrabble, which indicates "usually rural area or place in flyover country* where working-class or poor white people struggle to get by." Note the assumption that it is African-Americans who are unemployed and on welfare, even though unemployment is common among working-class people, though there are more white people than black people on welfare, and though the "work" out in flyover country may be cooking meth.**

Thus our very cliches reflect prefabricated class attitudes and assumptions for the reader.

I am writing from the inside of the business with my own blind spots. It would be interesting to see what an anthropologist would make of American journalism.

*Flyover country, itself a highly suggestive term in journalism, indicates the exotic locales between the Eastern Seaboard and West Coast. Parachute journalists drop in on Cincinnati or Des Moines, as they would Sarajevo or Almaty, to describe the quaint native customs.

**Yes, I am aware that that, too, is a cliche, Thanks for noticing.

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