What you see can depend on what you’re looking for.
Psychologists call it confirmation bias: people’s tendency to seek out and give more credence to information that confirms their beliefs — and to disregard or disparage information they don’t like.
I hope you will help us test that concept for the Times-Union.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this space that some top advisers in the Trump administration are demonizing “the media,” echoing their boss’ calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” I said they are apparently “hoping to create an alternative reality built upon alternative facts which they create and control, bypassing independent reporting and evaluation they cannot control.”
I made the point that “media” is a plural noun, and it lumps together all mass media — “from wacko websites, basement bloggers, cable TV channels of every stripe and wild social networks to legitimate, professional — and yes, mainstream — journalism organizations.”
And I emphasized that serious journalism organizations, like the Times-Union, live by venerable codes of ethics that require us to do our jobs and cover the news faithfully and impartially, even in the face of partisan attacks from any direction.
Reader reaction was, as you’d expect, divided, about equally.
Barbara and Bill Ketchum were among those on the positive side: “We are grateful for the excellence and integrity of our news from the Florida Times-Union and your obvious ethical foundation. Thank you for doing such a good job for our community. We count on it.”
Readers on the other side were strong in their beliefs that many mainstream journalists are biased to the left (even though some excluded the Times-Union).
Michael Pelt said journalism’s ethical standards are “appropriate and exemplary. Unfortunately, the standards are ignored by most media in today’s environment. What Mr. Denton does not address is the very root cause of today’s war between the administration and the media. That is the extreme left bias being reported on network TV news, cable news programs and most newspapers. The only non-left media is talk radio that leans right.
“Millions of Americans and, I suspect Mr. Denton, would agree that the mainstream media heavily slants news coverage to the left. They do this by the wording of their articles and, even more contemptibly, simply not reporting issues that do not fit the ideology of the left.”
“We conservatives have known for a very long time that there is a huge bias in most of the media toward liberalism,” wrote Carolyn Laing. “But ever since Obama, it has gotten so bad that the media is just another part of the Democratic Party.”
James D. Powell said, “Frank Denton cannot keep a straight face and say that today’s journalists are being fair with Donald Trump as candidate or president.”
The conservative respondents were particularly critical of The Associated Press, the news cooperative that is the single biggest news provider to U.S. newspapers and electronic media.
“The T-U subscribes to the AP stories, and all of these stories are written by journalists that are anti-Trump,” wrote Roger Cable. “I can read any AP story and pick out the words and phrases that give it a negative slant.
“Sometimes, it’s more subtle than other times, but the idea is, over time, to gradually enter the subconscious of the reader and make us believe that Trump’s election was greatly influenced by Putin and is illegitimate. And that his goals are not our goals.”
Many of the critics used a broad brush, mentioning news coverage generally but not including specifics that would allow serious review and scrutiny.
While our standards and values are clearly stated and enforced, serious journalism is still a subjective endeavor. Reporters and editors are required to have a grip on their personal biases and rise above them, and our checks and balances work to correct any accidental straying.
But still, some readers complain that we are obviously conservative or obviously liberal. In the extreme partisanship these days, those complaints are mostly coming from the right.
I suspect some of them may be giving too much credence to some cable-TV and radio info-tainers who use real journalism as a straw man to build their own audiences. Or is it confirmation bias? Or is the criticism real and valid?
Let’s call the question.
Over the next week, I ask you to read the Times-Union’s news coverage very carefully and critically and look for political bias — in what we cover and how we cover it. Include the AP, as we’re responsible for everything we publish.(Do not nclude our opinion pages in this assessment — because they’re supposed to be biased, though overall balanced and fair.)
Then send me specifics — the story and exactly why you think it’s biased.
We’ll review the work with fresh eyes and — in this section two weeks from now — give you a full report. Yes, we will be objective and fair, and yes, you can have your say.