Jessell | TV News’ Real Bias Problem: Expediency
On a call with securities analysts last May, Nexstar CEO Perry Sook promised that the three-hour primetime newscast his company has in the works for cable network WGN America will be “100% absent of bias.
“And we’re so serious about that we’re hiring a panel of rhetoricians to review our broadcast for unconscious bias that may creep into the words we use and the reporting that we do,” he said.
He later made the same promise in pitching advertisers, saying News Nation, with the backing of 5,500 journalists in 110 Nexstar newsrooms, will “take you around the nation not to hear someone’s opinion, but to hear facts absent bias.”
So, it seems that unbiased news is the “unique selling proposition” with which Nexstar expects to crash the cluttered national news business, make a mark and make a buck.
There are a couple of problems with that.
First, there is nothing unique about positioning your news as unbiased. Is there a newscast that doesn’t claim to be unbiased, that doesn’t say it reports the news objectively?
Fox News came out of the box 25 years ago with that pitch, declaring itself to be “fair and balanced” so often that the words, in light of what Fox is, have been drained of meaning.
Here’s Norah O’Donnell talking last year about her imminent debut as the CBS Evening News anchor: “I think people are hungry for — craving for — an independent, non-biased, fact-based source for news.”
One of Nexstar’s cable rivals will be E.W. Scripps’s Newsy. “Be Informed. Not influenced,” it tells viewers.
Second, when Sook and others talk about bias they are talking about political bias — Democrat-Republican, left-right, conservative-liberal. That’s fine.
But the emphasis on political bias, while laudable, may be misplaced and counterproductive. There are other forms of bias that, if not contained and controlled, may result in a newscast without value and ultimately news without much of a following.
I wanted to learn more about Nexstar’s plans for curtailing bias.
I spoke to Jennifer Lyons, the experienced WGN-TV news pro charged with producing News Nation as well as Nexstar spokesman Gary Weitman. Oddly, neither wanted to talk about it much.
The last word I got from Weitman was that there will not be a “panel of rhetoricians,” but rather a couple on linguists, two media trainers and a full-time “special projects producer” assigned to keeping stories on the straight and narrow.
Weitman refused to identify any of these people so I could speak to them.
So, I went out and found my own media-savvy rhetorician. He is Dr. Andrew Cline, who teaches journalism and film students at Missouri State.
According to Cline, news without political bias is still something to aspire to. “In fact, your standard inverted pyramid style and the general ways that journalists go about things is a highly refined system that creates a discourse that I believe is very trustworthy.”
And he agrees that reporters and producers should try to scrub their language of bias, but they should also realize that it is not entirely possible. “The journalist who is going looking for the neutral term is squirrel chasing.”
Politicians purposely put labels on things in ways that they believe strengthens their argument, he explains, he says. For instance, one will call it an “inheritance tax,” while another insists on saying “death tax.”
In such cases, Cline suggests journalists ask the politicians who try to bend language in their favor why they use the terms they do. In that way, he says, they show they are not just someone with “a fictional objective point of view,” but someone who is trying hard to get to the nut of the matter.
But Cline makes a much larger point.
There are other kinds of biases or “frames” that determine what stories get covered and how they are covered. Recognizing and addressing them is just as important as getting political bias under control, he says.
On his website, Cline describes several of the biases that tend to overlap with each other.
They lead newsrooms to favor “bad news” and stories that lend themselves to narratives with good guys and bad guys and conflict. TV, of course, is also a sucker for stories with great video. That’s another bias.
I think the one that News Nation has to watch out for is what Cline calls “expediency bias.”
According to Cline, news organizations compete for readers and viewers, while reporters compete among themselves for space and air time. Because of that competition and the insistence on profit margins that exceed many other businesses, news organizations tend to go for news that can be “obtained quickly, easily and inexpensively.”
It’s easy to see how expediency bias manifests itself in local TV news. Rundowns are filled with crime, accidents and fires and superficial reporting of government, business and medicine containing little more than can be read in a press release or gathered at a press conference. Reaction to the news often comes from readily available, well-known sources or, worse, the random man or woman on the street.
More than anything else, expediency bias is what has kept local TV from evolving into great journalistic institutions as many newspapers did, and it could be what keeps News Nation from becoming a factor on the crowded national TV news stage, from even being a success.
As the first national newscast to be spawned by a local TV news organization, News Nation may be particularly vulnerable to this bias.
I applaud whatever Sook and Lyons do to keep political bias from creeping into the newscast through careless use of language, but it should not be their chief concern as they step up to cover national affairs.
The best way to avoid the appearance of political bias is simply to avoid critical, in-depth political reporting that upsets partisans. In other words, the way to go is to give in to expediency bias — report what Trump tweets, get the Democratic response and call it a day.
So, rather than promise news “100% absent of [political] bias,” I’d like to see Sook tell the analysts on the Q2 call next month that he is guaranteeing his national news service will have all the resources it needs so that it will be 100% absent expediency bias, that it will not be filled with political news that was gathered “quickly, easily and inexpensively.”