Journalism bias a matter of circumstance

November 14, 2014 — by Michelle Leung and Saya Sivaram

It is said that the first obligation of journalism is to the truth. 

It is said that the first obligation of journalism is to the truth. After all, newspapers hold a lot of power over the general population’s perception of events, as well as future generations’ memory of history. And as the school newspaper, the job of the Saratoga Falcon has the obligation to report major events that influence the student body.

In terms of outright ethical issues like changing quotes or intentionally printing false content, the Saratoga Falcon does a pretty good job avoiding dishonesty.

Subtler bias than blatant lying occurs more often. It may seem that the newspaper covers many of the same people over and over again — the “friends” of the reporters. Sometimes, this accusation of convenience sampling is founded: If a “Toga Talks” is necessary and we have a deadline of one hour, sometimes the only choice is to turn to students nearby.

The Falcon’s surveys will never reveal more than a possible indication of the student population’s views. After all, surveys rely on voluntary participation, which is a type of bias in itself — we usually only receive responses from students who feel particularly strongly about the surveyed issue.

It is also unavoidable that there will be a tendency to cover a certain personality type in the people whose quotes we use; those people with the best quotes will be featured most often.

After all, the purpose of a newspaper is to save students time by summarizing and reporting only the most interesting information: that which most people in our audience want to know about. The Falcon tends to cover the most high-profile students or those who hold more important roles in clubs and organizations because those students are the most newsworthy.

One of the first things we learn in Journalism 1 is that it is impossible to be completely objective. Whether in the wording of the sentence, or the placement of the quote, a reporter exercises at least unconscious bias in writing an article. There are definitely limits to how far the staff will go in covering sensitive topics; however, we try to ensure that no one will be harmed by the articles we put out.

For example, staff members try to avoid “piping,” or changing quotes. If there are inaccuracies, such as misreporting of quotes in the newspaper, they are usually a consequence of miscommunication between the source and the reporter.

When a more serious mistake is brought to the attention of the staff, the Falcon will either print a correction in the following issue or print a letter in a subsequent issue addressing the offending article.

In fact, mistakes in the exact wording of a quote are generally a result of reporters overzealously cleaning up sources’ language. Although most reporters make a sincere effort to quote exactly, it is not always efficient to include every sentence a source utters.

If you’ve noticed that your commentary sounds more professional than usual, it’s because the Falcon takes out “um’s” and “like’s” when transcribing quotes. Sometimes, we insert words to make a sentence clearer; through brackets, we can clarify that “he” means “Mr. Robinson,” or “over there” means “the library.”

In the end, the goal of the Falcon is to provide news to students, but it will never be 100 percent free of bias.  There’s a name for the type of article that is perfectly, clinically objective: a fact sheet. 

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