Opinions, “bias,” explanation, and journalism

Politifact’s Bill Adair writes:

In my courses at Duke, I begin each semester with a diagram I call the “Continuum of Journalism,” which includes a range of journalistic genres: op-eds, investigations, fact-checks, you name it. The continuum could easily be rebranded “The Bias Meter.” At one end is what I’ve labeled “Objective News”—stories that strive to present all points of view. At the other end is “Opinion,” which includes articles by columnists, op-eds, TV and film reviews, and newspaper editorials. Pieces on the “Opinion” end of the spectrum help us to explore our feelings on issues and sharpen our political views; they soften our perspectives, or crystallize them. We like bias in these types of articles, and know to expect it.

I wouldn’t use the term “objective news” to mean what he’s using it to mean. Maybe “straight news reporting” or “traditional news reporting” or something. And that approach, whatever you choose to call it, is not free from bias. But this spectrum is still useful. It’s not bias on the horizontal axis, but the extent to which the author is relying on a process designed to constrain or deemphasize or balance out their own individual assessment. In opinion, the whole point is to offer that assessment. In analysis, it’s the author’s assessment, tempered by a desire to explain competing perspectives from reliable sources. In straight news reporting, that authors’ and editors’ perspectives still play a role (no one is bias free) but the reporter follows a process designed to emphasize established facts that can be clearly attributed. (To better clarify this distinction I’ve been mulling over an analogy to regularization in machine learning. I’ll try and write that up soon.)

Here are some of my posts on similar topics:

Related(ish), and something I liked a lot from a while back… Here’s Matt Yglesias on a podcast explaining explanatory journalism:

“Oftentimes to really understand the news story that just gets on your radar you have to know some things that happened months ago or days ago… Explanation is about surfacing all of that amassed knowledge that the obsessive has and then organizing it so it makes sense to an intelligent, curious person who doesn’t happen to have been following this for a long time… If you ask someone who is very well versed in a subject to explain what is going on, that person is going to offer their view. Now, hopefully they will offer it in a fair-minded way, in a calm way, they will be persuasive, they will have evidence, they might even tell you that some other knowledgable people have a different perspective on it. But if you are knowledgable and you are explaining something to someone, it’s kind of crazy to try to hive off your understanding of what’s actually important and going on here, because otherwise why did we ask you at all?

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