The Nature of Bias

commentary by John McManus

On a brisk fall afternoon in 1951 an undefeated Princeton football team took on Dartmouth’s “Big Green.” The vicious game--in which a Princeton All-American’s nose was broken along with the Dartmouth quarterback’s leg--became the subject of a famous analysis of the nature of bias.

Princeton and Dartmouth students who saw the game, or a film of it, were asked to judge it. The Princeton observers overwhelmingly believed Dartmouth players had unfairly mauled their classmates. “No,” the Dartmouth observers said. Both sides were to blame.

The researchers concluded that there was no single game. What each side saw was shaped by their own purposes and background. The idea of objectivity was shattered.

I mention this research because groups on either side of the struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians are pressuring journalists to correct what each sees as obvious negative bias.

The critics certainly caught the Chronicle off base in its failure to cover a pro-Israel rally a month ago when the paper had reported pro-Palestinian demonstrations.  But other than such obvious asymmetry in reporting similar events, bias is very difficult to prove.

That’s because news brims with value decisions. Just calling this year 2002 values the birth of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus so highly it counts all time from the traditional date of his birth. Calling the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Israel or Palestine betrays values. So does the term “occupied territories.”

In seeking truth, journalists enter a contested arena.     

What they do there matters greatly. They have astonishing power to define reality. That’s why we need journalists with many different perspectives. And why concentration of media ownership is dangerous.  It’s also why your community should pay attention to the news and communicate--the biases you perceive.