Bzdek endorses “unbiased news,” which he associates with “rigorous, agenda-free journalism,” “straight” and “balanced” news that does its “damnedest not to spin the facts.” On the other side is “slanted news,” news with “some sort of lean to it,” as, he says, outlets including the Denver Post, the Colorado Sun, Westword, Colorado Public Radio, MSNBC, and Fox News produce.
Bzdek further explains the sort of news he advocates: “True journalists believe journalism’s role is to report as completely and fairly as possible all the verifiable facts so readers can decide for themselves what the truth is. We do not believe journalism should try to direct readers to a certain viewpoint….
“Fairness means an open-minded pursuit of the truth, a willingness to genuinely listen to all relevant parties and a commitment to thorough research of the facts, following them wherever they take us. It means ensuring that our reporting is rooted in evidence, expertise and experience. Once we have done that, we endeavor to tell our readers what we’ve learned honestly, straightforwardly and fearlessly, without personal opinion or bias….Our paper delivers news and opinion, but we believe in keeping a bright, sharp line between the two.”
Generally I’m on board with Bzdek’s project. News journalism is basically about investigating important facts about the events of the day, digesting those facts, and presenting them to the public. I do want to push on some of Bzdek’s assertions.
Contra Bzdek, journalists necessarily have an agenda. If they didn’t have any agenda, they would not have the motivation to get up in the morning and do the hard work of journalism. What matters is what agenda they have. Their primary agenda should be to learn the truth about important matters and to present it to their readers (or viewers).
They also must have a deeper agenda: Why does the truth matter? Generally journalists (reasonably) think that their work is important for promoting a healthy culture and politics. They also often rightly think that they have a role to play in holding powerful wrongdoers accountable. And most journalists want to earn a living doing their work. In an important sense, then, there is no such thing as agenda-free journalism.
News journalists should not have a narrow, partisan agenda, such as trying to get a particular party or candidate into power or a particular set of policies into law. Certainly they should not try to do that while pretending to be nonpartisan, and they should not make up “facts,” twist facts, or exclude relevant facts to guide readers to a preordained conclusion. As they say, half the truth is a great lie. I think that’s the problem that concerns Bzdek.
Notably, in his article, Bzdek fails to live up to his own standards in a couple respects. He accuses various Colorado news outlets of bias without offering any facts to back up his claim. Hence, he pushes a particular agenda—to promote his own publication—while pretending to discuss the facts objectively. If publications such as the Post and the Sun are so obviously biased, as Bzdek asserts, then he should have been able to easily pop off some representative examples. That he failed to do so reveals his own bias.
Bzdek’s article appears as a “news” piece, even though it obviously is an opinion piece. Should we give Bzdek a break precisely because his piece editorializes? No! One of the problems with Bzdek’s analysis is he presumes news journalists should be unbiased but that opinion (I’ll say “advocacy”) journalists may be biased. That’s the wrong way to look at advocacy journalism.
Advocacy journalists properly are open about their aims to convince readers of something. They treat facts respectfully and do not omit facts that undercut their case. They are (or should be) objective in that sense. They recognize that their conclusions are difficult to firmly establish and that reasonable people can disagree about them, yet they try their best to muster the relevant facts and arguments that support their case.
Some cases are mixed. Publications such as Colorado Newsline and the Colorado Times-Recorder clearly have a political agenda (although not a narrowly partisan one). Those are also both very good publications that often report important facts that other sites miss. I think it makes the most sense to view all of the “news” stories published by such sites as partly editorial in nature. That doesn’t bother me at all; readers should just be aware of what’s going on. (Complete Colorado also has a political agenda.)
Another issue: journalists (including editors) necessarily are highly selective in which facts they present to their audience. Someone decides which potential stories get assigned and which do not, which potential sources get interviewed and which do not, which paragraphs get included and which get cut. It is simply impossible for a journalist to include “all” the facts. What matters are relevant facts—and someone judges which facts are relevant.
Bzdek claims “journalism should [not] try to direct readers to a certain viewpoint,” but that is not always the case. Previously I mentioned a flat-earth convention in Denver. Should a news journalist seriously not write from the perspective that the earth is spherical? That would be ridiculous. Being unbiased does not mean pretending to be a moron or assuming that one’s readers are morons.
Or take the anti-vax movement. Should journalists write from the perspective that the anti-vax position is just as sensible as the position that vaccines save a lot of people’s lives? No. Sometimes reporting the facts entails taking a side.
I appreciate Bzdek’s commitment to quality news. The underlying issues regarding bias, objectivity, and related matters are, however, more complex than he presumes. The truth is hard.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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