Reporters, The Public and Bias:
Some Observations on a Conundrum
Much of the public is convinced that reporters allow their own political ideas
shape the news. Many even contend that the news media are trying to win
them over to
liberal social causes. And they are not alone in this appraisal. In
campaign, politicians have pleaded that the media are biased against them
only news that makes them look bad and their political opponents look
Yet, most reporters are convinced that they are news professionals going about
jobs fairly. Many are openly disdainful of those who accuse them of
having a liberal
How is it possible that so many credible witnesses are willing to testify that
have seen biased reporting while at the same time so many reporters
claim they are
innocent? This paper will attempt to provide some observations about
and suggest some things the media might do to defend itself against
some of the
charges of bias.
A Case in Point: The 1992 Presidential Campaign
After successful showings in the primaries in 1991 and early '92, Arkansas
Bill Clinton was being declared the front-runner for the Democratic
president. Since only months before he was almost completely unknown on
scene, some political writers were calling him the creation of the
media and noted
that he was receiving exceedingly kind treatment by the media.1 But then
turned sour for Clinton. Tabloid newspapers began to report tales of
infidelity, leading the mainstream media to jump on the story. Normally
serious-minded newspapers were assigning reporters to the "bimbo
patrol" to search
for more women willing to incriminate the governor. Soon his draft
use and his wife were under attack. (U.S. News and World Report labeled
the "overbearing yuppie wife from hell," while Time magazine featured a
titled "Why voters don't trust Clinton.")
Page , Reporters, The Public and Bias
Yet, many voters indicated they had more trust in Clinton than in the media.
half the people in one poll said they thought Clinton's new political
related principally to the way the press had covered him and not to
actions.2 Even some reporters thought Clinton was getting the short end
of stick. Six
months before the election, 64 percent of journalists surveyed said the
hurting Clinton's campaign and helping Bush's.3 One journalism trade
an analysis of the coverage that noted that Clinton was being trampled
by the press
but Bush was getting "kinder, gentler treatment." The writer argued
who he said tend to be Democrats, treat Democrats more harshly in order
seeming to be unfair.
But by the end of the campaign, neither of the other two presidential
would agree with that assessment. H. Ross Perot had a running battle with
When reporters asked Perot to document his charges that the Republicans
dirty tricks against him, Perot called the reporters "jerks." His
the press continued to deteriorate to the point that Jim Squires,
adviser and former editor of the Chicago Tribune, called the media
treatment of Perot
"the journalistic equivalent of the police beating of Rodney King,"
referring to the
black man who was videotaped being thrashed by Los Angeles police
wrote, "Only a few news organizations offered a balanced perspective of
campaign, reporting accurately, with traditional fairness and caution. .
Nor was Republican George Bush pleased with media coverage. He described the
coverage as "the most biased year in the history of presidential
politics" and told a
crowd in Ohio, "Every one of you knows that there has not been
objectivity in the
coverage." Bush got the biggest applause during his campaign appearances
when he held
up a bumper sticker that read "Annoy the Media, Reelect Bush." At one
Bush speech, a
supporter attacked a photographer who was trying to take pictures of
Vendors often sold T-shirts at Bush appearances and other conservative
imprinted with the CBS Eye and the words "Rather Biased."
Public, Politicians See Lots of Media Bias
With all three candidates claiming that the press is against them, the cynical
journalist might fall back on the adage: "If everyone hates us, we must be
But many in the public aren't so sure the press is doing right by them. Charges
the media preach a liberal doctrine have been around since at least the
when Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's vice president, called the media
"effete snobs" and
branded them liberal. Accusations that the media are part of the
establishment" have been made from scores of podiums and pulpits
nation and by many columnists and self-described media critics of all
stripes. (Time magazine even ran an article titled "Are the Media Too
after his first year in office, President Clinton groused to Rolling
Stone that he
had "not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal
Opinion polls have consistently found that the public agrees that the news
biased. A sampling of these findings:
y More than two-thirds of the public believed journalists tended to favor one
when reporting political and social issues.
y Almost half don't believe reporters get their facts straight.
y When asked if they thought the media "bent over backward" to tell both sides
story, only 29 percent thought TV newscasts did and 38 percent
said newspapers did.
y About 42 percent told pollsters that they did not think news organizations
careful to separate fact from opinion.
y More than two-thirds of the public believed journalists tended to favor one
when reporting political and social issues.
y When asked whether the media in general were liberal or conservative, 41
Americans said liberal while only 19 percent said
y More than half believed the media had too much say in picking the Democratic
Party's presidential nominee in 1992.
y 62 percent of California's legislators and their aides believed the
personal views of journalists influenced the news. More than half
called the media unfair.
And people who argue that the media have a liberal bias have some ammunition to
support their position. Most surveys of journalists confirm that
journalists tend to
be more liberalDor at least less conservativeDthan the general
population on most
political and social issues. A Los Angeles Times poll found newspaper
y more likely to favor abortion than the general public (82 percent to 51
y more likely to favor government help for people who are unable to support
themselves (95 percent to 83 percent),
y more likely to support employee rights for homosexuals (89 percent to 57
y more likely to support affirmative action for blacks and other minorities (81
percent to 57 percent),
y more likely to support stricter handgun controls (78 percent to 50 percent),
y more likely to support government regulation of business (49 percent to 22
y less likely than the public to support prayers in the public schools (25
74 percent) and the death penalty (47 percent to 75 percent),
y more likely than the general public to call themselves liberal (55 percent to
percent) and less likely to call themselves conservative (17
percent to 29 percent.)
Journalists working in the "media elite"Dthe network news departments and a
of major newspapersDhave been described as even more liberal than the
rest of the
press. One study found that more than 80 percent of these journalists
for Democrats, 90 percent of them were pro-choice on the abortion
issue, and most of
them had a definite anti-business bias. Other surveys also found
prestigious publications to be more liberal, but not to this degree.
It seems clear that the people in the newsrooms at newspapers and TV stations
probably more liberal than the publics they serve. Yet, these findings
alone do not
prove that the news itself is slanted by reporters to suit their
Despite the Polls, Journalists Say They're Fair
Several studies indicate that journalists themselves dispute the notion that
are biased. More than three-fourths of journalists in a poll reported in
Journalism Review said they believed the media treated all sides
fairly. In the
California poll, only 19 percent of the reporters agreed with the state's
leaders that reporters' personal views shaped the way they covered the
A Los Angeles Times poll of newspaper journalists had similar results. Although
journalists were more critical of their own newspapers' overall
covering the news than the general public was, they did not believe that
bias was an
issue. They were satisfied that papers they worked for were fair and
than half described their papers as "very good" in these areas and only
said "bad." These newspaper journalists, however, did not hold TV news in
regard. Only 16 percent thought local TV newsDand 12 percent thought
a very good job of being fair and impartial. Sixteen percent said local
TV news does
a bad job; 21 percent said the same of network news.
Curiously, journalists agree with the public that the media in general are
but they argue that their own papers tend to be politically
more than half the reporters and editors polled by the Los Angeles Times
media in general are liberal, while only 10 percent said conservative.
newspaper staff members were asked about their own newspapers, 42 percent
paper they worked for was conservative and only 28 percent said
Much of the academic research has been unable to find the kinds of consistent
political bias that the majority of the public sees in the media. For
Michael Robinson and his colleagues at George Washington University did
network TV coverage of three presidential campaigns, they concluded:
Ideological bias is one of those mistakes that the network news doesn't make. In
1980 primaries CBS treated "liberal" Ted Kennedy worse than it
"middle-of-the-roader" Jimmy Carter, and in the general-election campaign CBS
Carter worse than Reagan.
Robinson's studies concentrated primarily on story content. Other researchers,
Doris Graber, have made efforts to include the impact TV's pictures and
might have on voters. Her research did not find any strong political bias
coverage of the Reagan-Mondale election. She found that the words
were more favorable to Mondale, but Reagan was presented more positively
ways, including the "facts that Reagan is exceptionally photogenic and
that he received the lion's share of the coverage, and that a
of this coverage dealt with traits favoring him, like his
personableness and good
Robinson anticipated that many would not agree with his findings. He wrote:
anyone other than a Democrat conclude that political reporting is
Republicans and conservatives? Perhaps not."
That leaves us with this question: Why is that so many in the public sincerely
believe they see bias in the media when journalists themselves tend to
Biased Journalists or Biased Readers?
Perhaps the easiest explanation for the disagreement between the public and the
media over bias is that people see bias where there is none. Long-time CBS
and commentator Eric Sevareid observed that there was plenty of "biased
hearing." By that he meant that many people see bias in the media when
the facts in a
story do not jibe with the way they would like the world to be.
This may be especially true for true believers in a cause or a candidate. One
researcher found that people who are highly involved in an issue are more
take a critical or even slanted view of the contents of stories about
"Republican and Democratic groups each perceive media coverage that
favors the other
side," he concluded.
Similarly, Los Angeles Times media reporter David Shaw points out that the
prejudices of some critics warp their observations. In a review of two books
of the mediaDone written from a liberal perspective and one from a
viewpointDhe noted that reading them "is a bit like listening to two
accounts of a football game in which each rooted for the opposite side."
He said that
one book saw liberal bias in the same news accounts that the other book
conservative bias. For instance, both books discussed the shooting down of a
jetliner by the Soviets. One book said the American media emphasized
about the incident and downplayed the comments of the U.S. State
Department. The book
said this was proof the media tilted to the left. The authors of the
other book read
the same coverage of the same event, but they complained that the media
Reagan and the State Department's position and "virtually ignored"
evidence that the
authors claimed showed that Reagan and the State Department
incident. From this they concluded that media were tools of the
Sevareid's and Shaw's observations no doubt have merit. The "biased reading" of
true-believers in a party or cause and of writers with axes to grind are
part of explanation for why people believe the media are biased. And
since some of
the most strident criticisms of the press have come from conservatives
Jesse Helms and TV ministers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, it is
assume that conservatives are more dissatisfied with the press than are
But the polls indicate that the perception of media bias is not limited
idealogues or to conservatives. Researchers have found that the
political affiliation is not the best predictor of whether people see bias in
media. Level of education is. The more educated people are the more
likely they are
to see bias. And the polls have found that the public's concern over
their own political leanings or level of political interest. Liberals
conservatives were equally critical of the media.
Nor is it always the case that liberals and conservatives will necessarily see
same ideological spin in the same stories. As researcher Michael
out, some people said that Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory despite
coverage by network TV. Others said that his campaign received a major
boost from the
TV networks because their "superficial, picture-oriented coverage fit
his masterful media management."
Clearly, the gulf between reporters' and the public's perception of the amount
bias in the media cannot be explained entirely by blaming the public for
where there is none.
The Role of the Journalist and the Perception of Bias
In his studies of campaign coverage, Robinson concluded the media was filled
negativity. He described the news as a "cacophony of carping and
research found that bad-news messages outnumbered good ones 20 to one,
of the news was neutral. In 100 days of watching all three network news
his researchers found only 47 positive statements by
correspondents. He concluded
that the national press was "biased against everybody, but in near equal
The media's "bias against everybody" may be the result of the institutionalized
values in the media. Since the journalistic norms place generally place
importance in bad news, reporters are drawn to the negative. When reporters
consistently report bad news about a political candidate, the public may assume
the reporters are biased against the candidate. The media's handling of
illustrates this concern.
Squires, Perot's press spokesman, did not believe the media attacked Perot
reporters disagreed with Perot's politics but because it was the best
way for them to
advance their careers. Squires argued that reporters stoop to
journalism. They know that reporting negative news about a candidate will get
play for their stories than reporting positive news. So, Squires said,
will report rumors and break promises to sources because "simply taking
the story to
a new level and creating controversy does more for a reporter's career
today than the
more mundane truth ever could." He explained, "Without an angle, or an
cannot get in print or on the air." For some reporters, this means the
between a front-page byline or nothing to show for a week's work, between
standup on the evening news or another day without evidence of their
worth to the
financially pressed network news divisions.29
Squires is no Johnny-come-lately critic of many journalists' preference for bad
news. When he was editor of the Chicago Tribune, he criticized young
Chicago's city magazines by saying: "They go out of their way to bash the
institutions. . . . They're not going to attract any attention if they have a
positive kind of story. . . ." He explained:
If you go to Chicago magazine and say, "Boy, the Tribune sure has changed in
last seven years; it's a great newspaper now," there's not any
interest. If you go
into them and you say, "You know, I hear there's great
conflict of interest in the
editor's office at the Tribune and he had a temper tantrum the
other day and wet on
his desk," then they say, "Jesus Christ, that's a great
story; let's get that."30
Other journalists have come to the same conclusion. Reluctantly, they have
with Spiro Agnew, who was Richard Nixon's vice president until he had to
a bribery scandal. Agnew once described reporters as "nattering nabobs
The Los Angeles Times' Shaw said that most people who see bias in the news
not understand "the dynamics of the journalistic process." He
explained, "They don't
understand that good news isn't news, for example, or that the bias
have is not political but journalistic: they are biased in favor of a
good story, a
juicy, controversial story that will land them on Page 1 or on the
Shaw acknowledges that many in the press probably would rather write negative
stories about candidates they disagree with. "But," he wrote, "almost every
I've ever known would rather break a really juicy story exposing the
wrongdoing of a
politician he agrees with than do a routine story making that same
good. Does that make us ghouls? Nattering nabobs of negativism? Yes. Is
Probably not. But it sure as hell doesn't make us ideologues or
cheerleaders for the
Steven Roberts, writing in U.S. News and World Report, said much the same
"Washington journalists have only two enduring biases: against entrenched
in favor of a good yarn." Syndicated columnist Richard Cohen was
"Liberal or conservative, a reporter is a primitive being who would go after
mother if he thought that was a good story."
Time magazine concluded its article on bias in the media with this observation:
Some of the toughest stories about Clinton have emerged from the liberal New
Times and Los Angeles Times. Bush's two most ferocious
critics, syndicated columnists
William Safire of The New York Times and George Will of The
Washington Post, are
staunch members of his own party. That summarizes the deepest
politicians have to journalistsDnot that they are liberal, nor that
conservative, but that they are stubbornly individualistic and
Part of this stubbornnessDand the resulting emphasis on news that is often
negativeDis the result of the role American journalists have traditionally
they should play in society. Even before the Constitution guaranteed
Colonial editors saw it as their job to watch the activities of the
and to comment on them. One South Carolina editor argued that as long
were keeping tabs on Congress, senators could not "betray their trust;
serious matters into jokes; or transfer mountains into molehills."
This notion that it is the job of journalism to keep government in line remains
popular with journalists. For the past 20 years, four large-scale research
have tried to find out what values are important to American
journalists. Each time,
a large majority of journalists said investigating government claims
was among their
top priorities. David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, two Indiana
journalism professors who have conducted three of surveys of American
divided journalists' attitudes into three groups. The largest group saw
their role as
interpretive, believing they should investigative claims by
complex problems, and discuss policy. A second group placed greater
getting the news out as quickly as possible. Radio journalists, in
likely to be in this group. The smallest group was journalists who
should take an adversarial relationship with government. Most print
their roles as investigating government claims (66.7 percent said this
important) and informing the public quickly (68.6 percent). Considerably
journalists saw their role as to appeal to the widest audience (20.2
percent) or to
entertain (14 percent).
It seems clear that journalistsDparticularly print journalistsDbelieve that
tough questions and exposing wrongdoing are basic components of their
appears to be their bias toward bad news is probably not the result of
preference for bad news; it is a necessary consequence of what they see
Ellen Hume, executive director of a center that studies press and politics at
Harvard University, believes that this renewed emphasis on exposing the
of political leaders is one reason people have changed the way they
politicians and reporters. "The news was much more upbeat in the 1940s and
[the] nation's political leaders were treated by the journalists with
respect," she told the Los Angeles Times. This deference and respect
resulted in the
public looking upon both journalists and political leaders more
Frequently, people who see bias in the media point to two phenomena to prove
validity of their observation. When they see news organizations
committing teams of
reporters to stories like Clinton's marijuana use, it seems that all
chasing the same story. And when the stories appear in the media, they
all seem to
have the same political viewpoint. To many in the public, it looks as if
the press in
a very calculated, concerted way is beating up on one candidate and
needs of the other.
But there are other less conspiratorial explanations for this tendency,
some are not very flattering to the media. One is the intellectual
"pack journalism." David Shaw argued in the Los Angeles Times that what
"consensus journalism" is also the result of at least three factors. One
tendency of reporters to spend so much time together that their writings
reflect the consensus of the press corps itself as much as by their
intellect. Also, he contends that although journalists may like to think of
themselves as iconoclasts and risk-takers, they aren't. They may have been in
earlier day, but most contemporary journalists are "more serious, more
more corporate and more conformist," Shaw wrote. "Journalism is now a
with codes of ethics, pension plans and newsrooms that look more like
offices than the cluttered city rooms of generations past." In Shaw's view,
journalism is reinforced by technology which allows reporters to tie
and read reports by other reporters covering the same events. Their
editors too can
read the reports and may wonder why their reporter's stories don't jibe
accounts. They may figure that a story similar to what other papers is
less likely to get them in trouble. If they run a story counter to other
they will lose the excuse that "everybody got it wrong." He quoted CBS
Rather as criticizing many of the younger reporters for their willingness
to play it
safe because they lacked the "intestinal fortitude" to go against the
But not all the lock-step reporting can be explained by intellectual laziness
corporate culture. Some of what the public sees as the press ganging up
on some poor
candidate is the result of conduct journalists find laudable. Print
particular often believe that it is their obligation to do beyond the
reporting of events and to try to find causes and significance. This effort
to strings of stories in which a candidate is portrayed in much the
same way. Editors
and reporters chase what to them is the obvious story of the week. But
to many in the
public, it appears that journalists are marching in some kind of
For instance, when George Bush named James Baker to be his new campaign
Baker's first remarks were to describe the campaign as being "in
Undoubtedly, every editor and every political reporter wanted to nail down the
of his comments. So, reporters began to chase the story of how messed
up the Bush
campaign was and to file stories that reflected negatively on Bush. To
(and some academics who dwell too much on content analyses), it
appeared the press
was out to get Bush.
This lock-step journalism can also lead to a flood of positive portrayals of
candidates. When the Dukakis campaign squandered a large post-convention lead
1988, reporters tried to figure out why. They ran stories indicating that
campaign was featuring photo-ops at flag factories and Boston harbor
was looking foolish as his campaign people had him pretending to drive a
wearing a crash helmet. These stories emphasized the ability of Bush's
and ridiculed Dukakis' and no doubt enhanced Bush's image in the minds
The political polls have added to the uniformity of story line. As Richard Ben
Cramer, who wrote in a book about the 1988 election, told Washington
Review, when the polls indicated Bush was losing the '92 election,
it was their obligation to explain this phenomenon. So they produced
explaining "why this guy was such an irredeemable schlub as to be trailing in
polls." When the polls indicated that Bush was catching up with Clinton
in the final
week of the campaign, reporters saw it as their mission "to explain
qualities have enabled this sterling character to fight back."
Reporters would argue that this lock-step journalism is the result of
news judgment. When a candidate does well in the polls or when a
makes a striking observation, it is the duty of the press to track down
the "whys" of
these events. They are reporting the story of the day fairly.
But many readers will see biased journalism. They will blame the personal
of reporters for touching off an avalanche of singular-minded stories.
argue that these one-sided stories are proof that the media are out to
election by pushing one candidate or demolishing the other.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Public opinion polls constantly remind journalists that a great many Americans
grown to believe that reporters let their own biases shape the course
of the news.
Yet many journalists are equally positive that most charges of media
bias are the
rantings of misguided people who, as David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times
have bemoaned, just don't understand the news business.
Much of the blame for this lack of understanding rests on the media themselves.
Art Nauman, former Sacramento Bee ombudsman, said, "The press does an
abysmal job of
Two arguments are often advanced justifying the media's reticence.
First, some journalists will point out some basic truths: the job of the press
not necessarily to be popular and too many people blame the messenger
when they do
not like the message. But journalists who make those statements are
problem. It is deeper than not being able to please all the people all
the time. If
journalists cannot earn the respect and trust of the public, they will
increasing difficulties in gathering the news and in being believed.
We are seeing signs that this is happening. Many Americans have grown so wary
press that many would like to roll back some of its constitutional
poll by the Los Angeles Times found that a third of the public favors
limits on news
media access to government records and files and would allow a
government official to
stop the media from reporting a story that the government official
believes might be
inaccurate.43 A large-scale survey by journalism professor Robert O.
Wyatt found that
Americans would probably not ratify the First Amendment if it were on
today. Two-thirds would limit such media practices as endorsing
criticizing the government and military, and reporting on politicians' past
About a fourth of the people said the media should not be involved in
these kinds of
activities at all.44 All of this should suggest that media need to take
of the public more seriously. While perhaps it is not necessary for
journalists to be
loved, it seems counter-productive for them to become despised.
Second, some journalists will point out that newspapers have tried to answer
criticisms and these efforts have met with only mixed success. They
will note that 25
years ago, the concept of newspaper ombudsmen was advocated as a way
for newspapers t
o respond to the public. But soon after the experiment began, some of
the idea's most
enthusiastic advocates backed away from it. Today, fewer than 40 of
dailies have ombudsmen, although the concept is more common in
Canada.45 None of the
TV networks had ombudsmen until 1993, when NBC named one.46
Although many of the efforts at establishing ombudsmen failed, often the
were caused by a lack of understanding of what their role was to be.
was the editor who appointed the first ombudsman for the Louisville
papers and later
became a critic of the movement. He complained that at too many papers
position was given to "an old battle-scarred veteran who would have
been assigned to
the library if he hadn't been named ombudsman" while at other papers
became "purely cosmetic; some guy writing a media column in which all he
explain the virtues of the newspaper."47
The ombudsman's role has been equally unsatisfactory at other papers. Miami
Executive Editor Douglas Clifton said he considered ombudsmen "a
readers and journalists, contending that it is good for editors to "feel
the wrath of
readers" after they have made controversial news decisions.48 Robert
executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, argued that having an
little to improve the quality of his paper. Haiman said that ombudsmen
did not get
involved with a problem until after the story was printed. He compared
coroners, whose job it is "to do the post-mortem on a disaster, to pick
tatters of flesh after a terrible crash."49
These criticisms are no doubt valid if the job of the ombudsman is solely to
as an in-house critic and/or appointed conscience of the newsroom. But
saw their roles differently. After reading more than 70 columns by
Salant, former president of CBS News, praised the work of ombudsmen who
how the subject matter complained about happenedDtracing its origins
contributing to public understanding of the news process, and its
fallibility." He a
lso cited other ombudsmen whose columns question media performance and
like objectivity and journalistic conflicts of interest.50 That's the
role the Bee's
Nauman wanted ombudsmen to have. He explained, "Most of the time we
have not been
willing to tell our customers how we reach these decisions that have such
impact on so many lives."51
But the answer to the problem of the popular perception of media bias does not
necessarily rest with the appointment of more ombudsmen. There are at least
that the media can go about explaining themselves to the public that
are easier and
cheaper than hiring a full-time ombudsman and more in keeping with the
The first has to do with including the news media in our news coverage.
newspapers throughout the last half of this century have been broadening
definition of news. No longer do journalists see politics and crime as the
beats. Journalists now detail the workings of business, the health care
entertainment industries, and other major players in readers' everyday
missing from this new realm of coverage are the news media themselves.
Except for an
occasional column lambasting local TV news and for stories exposing the
of political advertisements, most news organizations seem to believe
that the news
media aren't worthy of coverage. That creates a certain irony.
Newspapers and TV news
teams want the public to consider the news media an important part of
lives and a fundamental part of our democratic society. Yet they don't
media important enough to cover.
Some might contend that readers and viewers aren't interested in these issues.
there are plenty of indications that, if done well, these stories can
David Shaw has been writing about media issues for the Los Angeles Times
and has often been critical of the Times in his stories. The Wall
Street Journal, The
Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Newsday, Newsweek
and Time all
regularly cover the media. And most American papers have found that
readers like the
work of movie and TV critics and columnists. It does not seem to be
such a bold
suggestion that critiques of the local news media might also be successful.
media criticism is popular in Britain. Each week the second section of The
is devoted to the media, and the BBC newscasts include nightly reviews
of the next
These news stories and columns can address issues about how journalists decide
is news and how they go about covering stories. They can provide
understand what they canDand cannotDexpect from the media. Now, the American
get most of their insights into the work of journalists by watching
journalists in movies and TV dramas and by trusting their intuition about the
motivations of reporters as they cover the news.
A second suggestion for explaining news judgments to readers would take even
effort than these occasional stories and columns. Reporters and editors
often talk of
"nut graphs," paragraphs that appear high in the story that state the
main idea of
the story. The notion behind these paragraphs is that they explain to
the reader what
the point of the story is.
These nut graphs could also be used in some stories to explain why the
editors believed the story was news. These need not be lame sentences
self-servingly tell the reader how important the story is, but honest
about how the story came about. If the reason the reporter is chasing
the faltering Bush campaign is because of his campaign director's
A trend in the early '90s at newspapers like the Portland (Maine) Press Herald
The Orlando Sentinel to invite readers to sit in on its editorial
meetings may be
another way for newspapers to get across to the public how they go about
decisions. The public is also invited to offer opinions or listen to the
as the editorial writers map out upcoming editorial pages.
My final suggestion will be even less popular in the minds of some reporters
editors. But it seems clear that it is time for journalists to reconsider
profession's bias toward bad news. Too often journalists have rejected this
by trotting out the old saw that planes landing safely at the airport
are not news,
planes crashing are. But that argument begs the question. If reporters
see their duty
only as to chase negative stories, then negative stories are all they
are likely to
find. They will fail to serve their readers in at least two ways.
First, a journalism
of cynicism will no doubt lead to cynical readers who will not care
about the events
of the day and therefore have little need for news media. Second,
readers who do care
may conclude that they cannot find the information they are seeking in
Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's evening news show, told the Los Angeles
believed that happened early in the '92 election. "While we were all
trying to run
Bill Clinton into the ground on the subject of Gennifer Flowers, the
voters in New
Hampshire wanted to know about the economy. We got in their way," he
As news media organizations fret over declines in readership and viewership and
the public becomes more and more disenchanted with journalists, it is
journalists to reconsider what may be their most fundamental duty in a free
finding ways to inform voters of the candidates, the issues and the
workings of the
political system. They will not accomplish this goal if the news is
biased and therefore not believable.
 Todd Gitlin, "Media Lemmings Run Amok," Washington Journalism Review, A
1992, p. 28.
 Jim Squires, "How the Press Savaged Perot," Niem
an Reports, Fall 1992, p. 3.
 Debra Gersh, "Press Bashing is For Naught," Editor
& Publisher, Nov. 14, 1992,
p. 11, describes Perot's and Bush's reaction
s to the press during the 1992 campaign.
 William A. Henry III, "Are the Media T
oo Liberal?" Time, Oct. 19, 1992, pp.
 Times Mirror poll, se
e "How Are We Doing?" Columbia Journalism Review,
p. 15., and Peter A. Brown, "Squires is right we are out of
touch with vo
ters and their concerns," ASNE Bulletin, November 1992, p. 8. Earlier
es Mirror polls had found 53 percent thought the media favored one side. See
Mirror, The People & The Press, Los Angeles: Times Mirror, 1986, p. 29.
Brown, p. 8.
 Poll cited in David Gergen, "The Message to the Media," Public Op
April/May 1984, pp. 5-8.
 Poll done by MORI Research for the
American Society of Newspaper Editors cited
by William Schneider and I.A.
Lewis, "Views on the News," Public Opinion,
August/September 1985, p. 10
 Times Mirror poll, see "How Are We Doing?" Columbia Journalism Review,
January/February 1992, p. 15., and Brown, "Squires is right."
 Times Mirror,
The Public & The Press, p. 30.
 Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press
 "Perceptions: 'Media vs. Government,'" Quill, March 1992, p. 15. Survey
Josephson Institute of Ethics.
 See S. Robert Lichter, Stanley R
othman and Linda S. Lichter, The Media Elite.
Bethesda: Adler & Adler, 1
986. Weaver and Wilhoit in The American Journalist: Second
re their findings to those in this book. They found journalists at
igious organizations to be more liberal, but not to the extent that Lichter,
Rothman and Lichter reported.
 "How Are We Doing?" p. 16.
 His findin
gs can be found in Michael Robinson, "Just How Liberal Is The News?
Revisited," Public Opinion, Feb./March 1983, pp. 55-60; Michael Robinson and
Maura Clancey, "The Media in Campaign '84: General Election Coverage,"
Opinion, December/January 1985; Michael Robinson and Maura Clancey, "The M
Campaign '84: Part Two," Public Opinion, February/March 1985; M
ichael Robinson and
Maura Clancey, "Network News, 15 Years After Agnew,"
1985, pp. 34-39; and Michael J. Robinson, "N
ews Media Myths and Realities: What
Network News Did and Didn't Do in th
e 1984 General Campaign," in Kay Schlozman,
editor, Elections in America
. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987, pp. 143-171.
 Robinson and Clancey, p. 34.
Doris A. Graber, "Kind Pictures and Harsh Words: How Television Presents the
Candidates," in Kay Schlozman, Elections in America, Boston: Allen and
 Robinson, "Just How Liberal is the News?"
Albert C. Gunther, "Biased Press or Biased Public," Public Opinion Quarterly,
Summer 1992, pp. 147-167.
 David Shaw, "Of Isms and Prisms," Columbia Jo
urnalism Review, January/February
1991, pp. 56-57.
 Schneider and
Lewis, pp. 6-11, 58-59.
 Robinson and Clancey "Network News, 15 Years After Agne
w," p. 34.
 Robinson and Clancey, p. 38.
 Robinson, "Just How Liberal Is T
he News? 1980 Revisited."
 Shaw, "Isms and Prisms."
 Steven V. Roberts, "W
here's The Cheering Press?" U.S. News and World Report,
March 21, 1984,
 Quoted in Henry, p. 47.
 Wm. David Sloan, James G. St
ovall, and James D. Startt, editors, The Media in
America: A History, Wo
rthington, Ohio: Publishing Horizons, 1989, p. 71.
 The first is reported in Joh
n W.C. Johnstone, Edward J. Slawski and William W.
Bowman, The News Peop
le: A Sociological Profile of American Journalists and Their
a: University of Illinois Press, 1976. David H. Weaver and Cleveland
hoit have replicated and expanded on their research three times. See their books
The American Journalist: A Portrait of U.S. News People and Their Work,
Indiana University Press, First Edition, 1986, and Second Editio
n, 1991, and their
report,"The American Journalist in the 1990s: A Preli
minary Report of Key Findings
From a 1992 National Survey of U.S. Journa
lists," Arlington: Freedom Forum, 1992.
 Weaver and Wilhoit, second edition, pp.
 Weaver and Wilhoit, "The American Journalist in the 1990s." Also see
book. The American Journalist: A Portrait of U.S. News People and
Their Work: Second
Edition, p. 114.
 Shaw, "How Media Gives Storie
s Same 'Spin'."
 Jeffrey L. Katz, "Tilt?" Washington Journalism Review, pp. 23-2