novelist | journalist | istist

More on bias in the news

Bias. Sensationalism. Misrepresentation. Evil!

OK, so maybe the last one down isn’t in the top accusations routinely levied against journalists but it may as well be.

Even when we’re striving do nothing more than present the events as they occurred, we sometimes get criticized.

I’ve never been shy about admitting there are some lackluster news gatherers out there but most of us strive to do our best.

After all, eyewitness accounts can be unreliable even among well-meaning individuals. But, reporters are taught skills to help ensure their version of events is as true as a fallible human being can get.

That said, I am a firm believer in detailed notes. Rather, I tend toward exhaustive notes, which explains why it takes me so much longer than the average bear to write a story. Well, that, and I’m what Stephen King calls “a put-er-in-er.”

My stories tend to run long because I always find some interesting quotes or some supplemental info I think the reader could really use.

It’s called “long-form” journalism, these in-depth stories. But, don’t get me wrong: I’m not a puffer. I don’t pack stories with unnecessary text just to bulk a piece up.

At least, I try not to.

I am also a firm believer of keeping recordings of interviews and meetings and just about any old thing I’ll want a record of. This also slows the writing process.

I mean, I’m a damned fast typist. I haven’t clocked my fingers recently but a few years ago I was, like most qwerty writers, way up there.

I tell you all this to tell you that accuracy matters to me.

Sure, it matters to all reporters.

But, I have an annoying and some (specifically the wife) may say compulsive need to ensure every grunt and groan is recorded as it was grunted and/or groaned.

I don’t just want to make sure I get the tone and the words and the outcome of a meeting or an interview correct, I must do so.

Why?

Good question. (I hate it when people say “good question.” Like I need you to tell me it was a good question.)

All the ridiculous number of hours I put into interviewing and writing and editing and designing newspaper pages and putting advertisements together and making decisions about what item constitutes news and what is a blatant attempt at a business looking for free advertising (you know who you are) … none of that matters if you don’t trust me.

Benny G. can tell you that the chief of police said he saw an alien spacecraft touch down on Kipke Field but if you don’t trust me, you’re not going to believe it. (God, I’m excited for the return of the X Files.)

I can report to you that the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners said they were contemplating sending an angry letter to the State of Michigan because they were frustrated over delays on the non-motorized trail from Boyne City to US-31 … but if you don’t believe I am telling you the truth, it won’t matter.

And, when I do make a mistake, it’s doubly, triply, quadruply, quintuply (I’m just making up words now—trust me on that) that I admit the mistake was made and give you the correct information.

You want a for instance?

For instance: several years ago, I wrongly attributed quotes to a Boyne City Commissioner.

He alerted me to my mistake and I made the correction—on page one of the newspaper—the following week.

It was the least I could do.

It was also the most I could do.

Sure, I feel like a dummy when I make a mistake.

Few things drop hot lead into my lower guts like realizing I put the wrong date on a meeting notice or misspelled someone’s name, etc.

But, I care too much about the community and the news business and my reputation not to make a correction or a clarification or—god help me never have to do this—the dreaded retraction.

So, when I rang up a local Charlevoix County official last week or so to ask some questions about a routine matter, I was shocked and insulted (and then enraged) to have this person turn on me and begin accusing me of getting a story wrong and being a sensationalist and on and on.

“What story?” I said.

Hell, I write a lot of stories and some of those stories contain information which make people unhappy.

“You know which story!” they grunted. (Well, maybe more of stern yell than a grunt.)

I really didn’t know which story.

Then I did.

This official was upset about the story wherein I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of sources and took a great many notes and found a very interesting recording of the Charlevoix County Board of Commissioners saying some very interesting things concerning that non-motorized trail I referenced a little while ago.

I was right.

They were wrong.

Then I did something that I have seldom done in my career as an evil liberal media type: I got mad.

I can count on about five fingers how many times I’ve let my temper get the best of me in my time in this business.

I remember each incident in great detail. (I still have recordings of a couple of them)

And, because I am now on good terms with three of those five people, I won’t get into details on what it was about and what was said.

Let’s just say I was right in three of those instances.

Wrong in one.

The fifth is a toss-up as to whom was being the bigger jerk.

“You got that story all wrong,” said the county official, adding that I misrepresented what was said.

Looking to avoid a rage-induced stroke, I asked this person—quite loudly—what in the story I got wrong.

No response.

“Tell me what I got wrong and I’ll make a correction!”

No response.

“Tell me one thing that is inaccurate or biased in this story.

No response.

We both took a beat and I apologized for raising my voice.

This official apologized for the accusations they made.

We went on to talk for another 15 or 20 minutes in a perfectly reasonable tone about other things relating to the county.

Once we both calmed down, this person admitted that they were upset because I reported some officials saying some potentially inflammatory things which they felt might get them in trouble with the state—which controls whether the county will get hundreds of thousands of dollars in free money (yes, I know it’s tax money but it’s found money to this county. And, actually, the money comes from gas and oil leases so it’s not exactly wrung from the pockets of Ma and Pa Burlap.)

Anyways, that was how it went.

And, outside of the handful of times I make meaningful mistakes, most of the time that people come screaming about bias and sensationalism and how our news coverage is all part of some stinkin’ commie plot, it’s usually a person who is upset because they don’t like the truth we printed.

I’ve gotten phone calls from angry mothers because we published information about their drug-dealing sons. Little Stevie may have been peddling crack cocaine to school kids but he’s still mommy’s little man.

I’ve gotten letters from people who hate me because I listed their divorce with the rest of the court information on page 3.

I’ve been threatened with a lawsuit by a woman who lied about her age and was about to get married and did not want her fiancee to find out she was much much older than she had been telling everyone. (How they didn’t know was beyond me.)

Heck, there’s a fella somewhere in these parts who still gives me dirty looks many years after he tried to bribe me to not publish his drunk driving arrest.

I turned him down flat.

He didn’t like that.

So, there you have it.

If I make a mistake in a story, I’ll make sure people know I did.

But, remember this: just because you don’t like the information in a story, that doesn’t make it wrong or biased or sensational.

I’ll leave you with a little tip.

Your best bet to avoid sounding like a fool in the newspaper is not to behave like one in a public meeting.

Peace and golden fleece!

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