Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Legwork or lack thereof: the new bias in the industry

There's obvious, in-your-face bias that the general public can spot a mile away. There's bias by omission, by which you don't cover stories that go against your agenda.

Welcome, boys and girls, to the latest tangent to the omission condition: legwork bias. Or, to put it in simpler terms, how hard do you really dig for a story that doesn't support your agenda?

Let's say your News Director is a card carrying member of one political party and you're a member of another. He assigns you to look into allegations concerning a candidate you really like. Are you gonna turn over endless slips of paper like Redford and Hoffman in "All the President's Men" or just phone it in? And if you're assigned to dig up skeletons in the closet of a candidate you despise, will you pull out all the stops?

Many news organizations think they're being fair by covering both sides, but very often the effort is not equal.

I'll give you two examples: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Watch coverage of either of these groups on a variety of stations and you'll come away with very different viewpoints. Right now Occupy is often the lead story... but are you getting the full story? I have friends in NYC who tell me the movement is just a few hundred people, but I've yet to see an aerial shot of the group, like the one we got of the Tea Party rally in Washington, DC. It reminds me of the time we showed up to cover a protest and there were about four people. I called in and told the desk we had no story, and was told to "shoot it tight."

So is Occupy a growing horde of people, or just a few hundred "shot tight?" We've seen plenty of shots of people being hauled away by cops, but where's the police point of view? And why are reporters saying both groups are similar? Do you remember any arrests during Tea Party protests? Confrontations with police? Did any Tea Party gatherings create a health hazard?

These are separate stories, very different stories, but both provide evidence of bias on both sides. Underestimating or overestimating crowds, pointing out the whack jobs or sympathetic figures, or using one protest sign to symbolize the entire group are easy means to a biased end. And in regard to the latter, does one protest sign mean all Tea Party members are racist and all Occupy members are anti-Semitic? If you're covering a group, you can't just focus on one person.

If you're going to dig on any story, make sure you keep using your shovel until you hit paydirt. If not, you're just digging yourself a hole.


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