Opinion: Media Mangle

Early Lessons in Journalistic Bias

I’ve been writing about media bias for 20-plus years, since that day in the early ’90s when the scales fell from my eyes and I saw what was happening in my chosen profession. I was managing editor of The Herald-Sun in Durham, and I began seeing things I didn’t like, not only in the national media, but in my own newspaper.

Why did we use the descriptor “right-wing” so often, but never “left-wing”? Why were some groups always called “conservative,” but liberal groups were never called “liberal”? Why was a story about a liberal/Democrat in trouble handled differently than a story about a conservative/Republican in trouble?

Many say that liberals are simply attracted to journalism in greater numbers than conservatives. That’s undoubtedly true, but that hasn’t always ensured biased stories. Every reporter on my first newspaper in 1973 was a liberal, but our editors, equally liberal, wouldn’t allow bias in our stories. That does not seem to be the case today. In fact, with liberal bias becoming the norm in the mainstream media, I’m guessing it’s rewarded.

When did this sea change take place?

When I was in journalism school, we were required to take ethics courses that taught us that personal biases showing themselves in a news story were the scourge of the news business. Bias destroyed credibility and harmed the profession, we were taught. Is that still the case? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Recently we had the sensational story in Rolling Stone of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The resulting journalistic hysteria was similar to that which occurred in 2006 in the infamous Duke lacrosse rape hoax story. Liberal biases were deployed to produce a narrative that fit left-wing sensibilities.

Gradually, however, the UVa rape story fell apart. Soon it became evident that many of the claims by “Jackie,” the alleged victim, simply were not true. You’d think this would cause mea culpas to issue from the media, but that was not the case.

An editor of the University of Virginia student newspaper, a future mainstream journalist, I would imagine, reacted to the dissolving story by arguing that “to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.”

Where did she learn such nonsense? Who trained this woman to believe that the narrative trumps facts? I’m guessing she learned it in journalism class, or “media studies,” as they call it there.

All social sciences today are obsessed with race, class, and gender, journalism classes included. I’m guessing that UVa editor learned her warped journalistic values from her professors.

And that’s the nub of the problem right there.

Jon Ham (@rivlax) is Publisher of Carolina Journal and Vice President for Communications at the John Locke Foundation.