While many people believe that the media are inherently biased, those of us who've gotten degrees in journalism have had it drilled into our skulls that bias is A Bad ThingTM.
Hard-nosed, old-school newspaper reporters are particularly touchy about bias: in their world, good reporters should be neutral, non-participatory observers. A good reporter must be objective above all else. If you're a reporter, you aren't allowed to have an opinion or to take a side on a debate or issue ... unless you're writing for the Op/Ed page or the Sports page (sports writers are freely allowed to root for the home team, of course).
In the hardcore journalistic world, advocacy reporting -- writing to promote something one believes in -- is verboten. And this is where things get tricky for those who have chosen a career as science reporters. Not only are the vast majority of jobs for science writers going to be advocacy reporting jobs (such as writing for most nature magazines, which take a strong environmentalist political stance), there has even been a lot of suggestion that a reporter who is highly educated in the sciences may automatically lose his or her objectivity.
Academic Dorothy Nelkin writes in her book Selling Science:
"While agreeing that there is a need for greater technical sophistication, some journalists argue that too much science education can handicap the reporter ... journalists trained extensively in science may adopt the values of scientists and lose the ability to be critical."
Her beliefs were echoed by many speakers at a Society of Environmental Journalists conference I attended. I believe there was even an informal session scheduled to discuss whether or not people with science degrees should be allowed to cover environmental beats or not.
To me, the idea that reporters will be intellectually biased by having a substantive science education is silly, and potentially dangerous. First of all, science and journalism value the same things: an objective, unbiased search for the truth. The procedures and products of science and journalism are different, but their value systems are much the same.
I agree that some science-educated reporters may develop such a deep respect for science that they are less willing to ask hard questions. But I take issue with the idea that such science students will learn to love all scientists. I respect the men and women who taught me biology at ASU, and I think biology is too cool for words. But, on the other hand, many of my experiences with physics, geology, and math professors have been negative, to say the least. I loved the subject matter, but I didn't care much for those who taught me (let's just say I experimented with pins and voodoo dolls on a few occasions).
Even if I am biased (and I don't think I am) towards not wanting to journalistically rough up biologists, this bias certainly does not extend to physicists. And now that we are talking about a journalist's "formative years," what if a given reporter's father is a police chief, and that reporter grew up with a deep respect for policemen? Is this reporter too biased to cover crime?
And in a larger sense, what about the intellectual socialization that goes on in journalism programs around the country? Every journalism professor I've met has had a different idea about what the "ideal journalist" thinks and does, and teaches accordingly. Might not budding journalists be "biased" if they listen to and emulate a favorite professor?
And I do think that the idea that a highly educated reporter is biased is a dangerous one. As an undergrad, I hung out at the journalism department, and I worked with lot of j-majors. And in the main, they didn't exactly strain themselves to do well in in their classes. Sometimes this was because their whole existence was centered around the school paper or yearbook. But a few of them seemed to have an attitude of "Why do I need an education? I'm a reporter! Reporters don't need to know all that stuff!"
And hearing professionals say that education is a bad thing reinforces this lazy, cheeseball attitude. A reporter who scorns education has a mind that is already halfway closed, and the rest of it is liable to snap shut whenever the reporter is faced with a difficult technical issue he or she cannot easily comprehend.
In fact, the whole discussion of bias at the SEJ conference (mostly in a panel discussion on ethics) made me feel a little seasick. Casey Bukro of the Chicago Tribune was particularly hard-nosed about ethics: he stated that journalists should be strictly neutral and non-participatory. He basically said that if you've given five bucks to Greenpeace, you have no business on the environment beat. Bukro seems to believe in the "just the facts, ma'am" brand of reporting.
All good and well, but the "facts" are seldom that obvious in environmental issues. If anything, environmental issues are even stickier than regular science issues because of the messy intersection of hot politics and scientific debate. Others argued with Bukro, saying that being an advocate for environmental reform is not the same as being an advocate for a political platform. I tend to agree with them, and I feel that Bukro's proposed ethical standards are unworkable. The environmental issue is so murky in spots, I think some level of synthesis and value-judgement on the part of the reporter is necessary to serve the needs of the reader.
Another panelist, Robert Engleman of Population Action International, explained why he had "turned" from reporting to advocacy. He seemed terribly embarrassed, and I sensed unspoken scorn for him in the room.
How useless. I realize that fairness, balance, and accuracy are important, but if SEJ is really going to follow Bukro's lead in trying to stamp out "bias," their reporters are going to be turning out a whole lot of dull, superficial stories.