Liberal bias or public bias?

By John McManus
Posted Feb. 27, 2006

Have you noticed a new feistiness among journalists? Maybe it was news anchors flooded with despair in New Orleans showing images that put the lie to FEMA pronouncements.

Or after President Bush's state of the union speech, NPR finding experts to comment on the veracity of the president’s main points.

To some, challenging the Bush administration's grip on reality may seem a slam dunk case of liberal bias.

But it's really a bias in favor of the public. It's the only bias socially responsible journalism finds acceptable. In fact, it's required.

If a source misrepresents reality, journalists who pass on such information uncritically become PR agents, or worse, propagandists.

John McManus

I propose that every news organization take stock of the credibility of powerful sources they encounter routinely. To the extent the source has consistently misled the public, the reporting ought to change from an emphasis on the source’s comments to at least an equal focus on their accuracy.

In their influential book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel maintain that "the essence" of journalism is a “discipline of verification.”

Few news organizations have dared to live up to this standard.

Simple “he said” or “he said-she said” journalism is quicker and costs less than “he said, however the facts appear to differ” reporting.

Stenographic coverage also avoids the appearance of bias. But it's inherently one-sided because the powerful always have greater access to newsrooms than others.

Journalism without verification may seem more objective. But it's a false neutrality that gives equal credence to lopsided evidence.

In a world in which CEOs inside and outside of government make counter-factual statements with great certitude, we need much more of this public bias.

This commentary was first aired as a perspective on KQED on Feb. 27, 2006.