Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bias, agenda-driven reporting and corruption: a primer

When I call attention to excesses of the major corporate media either here or on Facebook, I almost never use the word "bias". And there's a reason.

What's happening in much of the media today goes way beyond simple bias, or even agenda-driven reporting, and reaches the realm of corruption.

Here's how I define the three:

Bias is when you go to cover a story or event you'd cover anyway, and you happen to emphasize one side of an argument over others, one sports team over another, etc. Everyone who's ever worked in journalism has been accused of bias at one time or another. Inadvertent and unintentional bias certainly exists, but it's often in the eyes of the beholder.

Agenda-driven reporting is when you decide ahead of time what story you're going to write or present, and do your information-gathering accordingly to fill in the template. For instance, you (or your editors) think the people who run the county mental health department are heartless and inept, you want to do a story that says that, and your questions follow that script.

Corruption is actually coordinating your coverage with combatants beforehand, planning with your subjects how you can do your story to advance their cause. Also, it's a group of journalists from supposedly competing outlets conspiring with each other and with sources to create and reinforce narratives.

In my 20 years at local newspapers prior to joining Capital Press, the instances of biased reporting I saw could probably be characterized as the exception rather than the rule. There were some examples of agenda-driven reporting, often spurred on by some overzealous editor. And I've witnessed one instance of actual corruption, involving a city council campaign years ago. But I've also studied news stories and reporter questioning enough to be able to spot agenda-driven reporting where it exists. And so, too, have many discerning news consumers.

In my view, 95 percent of what we see on the network news, cable news channels and major corporate newspapers can be characterized as agenda-driven. The same is true of political coverage from the Associated Press, which the folks at PowerLine have done a great job lately of chronicling. But as was revealed last year with the presidential campaign, a good percentage of this "journalism" has reached the realm of corruption, which I consider to be a cancer that could kill the entire industry.

A good example of agenda-driven reporting bordering on corruption was revealed this week at Breitbart:
A Washington Post reporter is looking for a family of illegal aliens so she can “help readers place themselves in the shoes of someone who feels no longer welcome in the United States,” according to an email obtained by Breitbart.

The request comes hot on the heels of a widely reported violent gang rape of a 14-year old in the same area for which two illegal aliens have been charged.

The request from Washington Post reporter Jessica Contrera was sent to an immigration lawyer, who then shared it Tuesday, March 28, via an email list with other lawyers at the Maryland State Bar Association. “I spend my time working on in-depth stories about the lives of people who are being affected by topics unfolding in the news,” Contrera wrote.

She continued:
I’m reaching out because I’m hoping my next story will be focused on an undocumented family. Specifically, I’m looking for a person or family who is voluntarily choosing to leave the U.S. and return to their home country, given the political climate and the increased threat of deportation[.] I can’t begin to imagine what a stressful and difficult decision it must be to leave your life behind, and I’m hoping that by spending time with a person or family as they prepare for their departure, I can help readers place themselves in the shoes of someone who feels no longer welcome in the United States. I’m getting in touch with you in hopes of finding out if the situation I described is something that’s happening in your area, and if you know anyone who might be leaving the country in the coming weeks. If so, I’d love to talk with you about my work and how I might best find this story.
According to a confidential source privy to the mailing list, reporters from left-wing news outlets routinely query the immigration section for sympathetic clients to help build their narrative.
Now we at the Capital Press do stories on immigration all the time, and we've focused during the past few months on the potential fallout from President Donald Trump's travel ban and vows to curb illegal immigration. Here is the story I did about the concerns felt by some ag sectors along the Central Coast relating to the new political environment. Where applicable, we'll ask growers or organizations such as the UFW if they're aware of any farmworkers who will be willing to talk to us about the subject at hand.

But we also report what can happen when growers hire illegal immigrants, whether inadvertently or not. And we don't ignore the potential negative impacts of illegal immigration, such as when an Arizona rancher was murdered while checking water lines and fences on his family's property.

The words, "I want to do a story that helps you with your cause," or their equivalent would never cross my lips or emanate from my keyboard. But then again, I operate within that segment of the journalism industry that still has ethics and standards. Some of our more dominant news outlets obviously do not.

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