Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Question of Media Bias

On Tuesday in Munich, Arsenal and reigning champions Bayern Munich drew 1-1 in the UEFA Champions League, giving the German club a 3-1 aggregate victory and a berth in the quarterfinals.

This is a classic first paragraph from a news agency or wire service report of Arsenal's most recent match. I can write it with authority even though I was not at the match and distribute it even though I do not work for a news outlet. In other words, I can perform many of the functions of a journalist, but I have not been one for a long time.

Others claiming a tighter hold on the mantle of journalist went far beyond the tone and structure of the "lede" I wrote and published immediate and withering criticism of Arsenal's performance, particularly that of playmaker Mesut Özil. I won't link to those stories for reasons I lay out later; they proved of fleeting value anyway, given evidence that Özil suffered an early injury in the match.

This coverage of the match provoked considerable discussion among Arsenal supporters, most of whom railed against bias in the media. Although this reaction is understandable, it has only a slightly less tenuous hold on logic and evidence than the original provocation did.

Tim Stillman's (@LittleDutchVA) thoughtful column on Arseblog debunked the notion of a media out to get Arsenal and its fans. I'd like to build on Tim's analysis and argue that the indignation over media bias stems from outdated concepts of journalists and journalism and fuels exactly the kind of behavior it decries.

Journalism the profession

The profession of journalism originated with individuals who wrote for printed works published daily, journaux in French. Publications of this nature had emerged in the early 18th century, famously The Spectator produced by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. A little more than a century later, individuals came to prominence as the named authors of articles in periodicals.

In the early 20th century, standards emerged to guide the activities of these individuals. Generally speaking, journalists were expected to be independent, to reveal the evidence that supported their stories, and to treat matters of public interest. Professionals in the field therefore followed practices of:
  1. Remaining impartial
  2. Disclosing sources or insisting on a minimum of two unnamed sources
  3. Quoting those sources accurately
  4. Writing in the third person with a detached tone
  5. Choosing topics with a priority on the public interest
Journalists often took license with these standards, particularly the disclosure of sources, and they usually gave themselves the authority to determine what would be in the public interest.

Impartiality vs. absence of bias

The expectations of impartiality and voice and tone created writing that did not betray an interest in the outcome of an event. Whether that was a political campaign or an athletic contest, the journalist's account was supposed to unfold with little indication of the writer's own preferences.

This didn't mean journalists had no biases. That would have made them superhuman.

My experience as a sports journalist suggests that professionals in the field did and do carry biases. When I wrote for a daily newspaper in the US, we preferred certain outcomes, based on fairly mundane considerations, especially:
  1. The personality or approachability of the participants
  2. The potential for lively quotes
  3. The prospect of a result leading to a trip to a desirable destination or event
  4. The possibility for enhanced personal visibility
  5. The opportunity to enjoy a better pre-game and game experience (read: spreads)
These are hardly noble or complex motives, and they constitute biases. The professional directive was just that these biases didn't influence the writing.

Early 21st-century sportswriting and the Arsenal

That mandate has lost its power in the media saturation of the early 21st century. Twitter's immediacy and brevity and commercial websites' hunger for content both encourage writers to publish opinion as news. The objective is no longer performing the craft of journalism; it's gaining attention. 

With this attention comes scrutiny. Anyone with access to a computer can now engage in an instantaneous debate with members of the media in a sort of perpetual Letters to the Editor. Meanwhile, media colleagues can react with public ribbing, which may have been limited to in-person banter before.

The speed, omnipresence, and vulnerability associated with modern media all strengthen the tendency to align one's writing with popular or easily understood storylines. Shaping a piece to fit the "Arsenal in Crisis" or the "Lazy Foreigner" plot requires little in the way of thought, analysis, or time. It's also not likely to provoke ridicule from one's peers. 

What's more, these plotlines summon indignation and attention from Arsenal supporters, which is of course the objective.

My recommendation? Instead of taking that bait, ignore it. Focus on the club and its performance, not on what published writers say about the Arsenal. 

And don't dignify those writers by calling them journalists. They clearly don't meet the professional standards that title implies. "Writers" or "media," sure, if you want to be generous, but in many cases they're just provocateurs and self-promoters.

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