Journalists are biased, but not how you think

Earlier this week, a reader took to Twitter to criticize the headline on our story about the Alpena Municipal Council’s consideration of a smoking ban in public parks. The reader said the headline, “Snuffing smokers,” showed an anti-smoker bias.

I had to chuckle. The story was written by a smoker, the headline was written by a smoker, and the page was laid out by an ex-smoker. I have as much self-loathing as the next guy, but I’m certainly not anti-myself.

In my experience, some readers tend to read their own biases into journalism. If they like something or someone who is the subject of a critical piece, they howl bias, regardless of the facts. If they dislike something or someone who is the subject of a more glowing profile, they howl bias.

The truth is, journalists are biased.

But not in the way you think. The prejudice has nothing to do with facts or fairness.

In my many years as a journalist, the nervousness and fear every time I turned in an investigative piece never went away. I would toss and turn the night before it published, thinking the piece over and again in my mind, wondering if I had done all I could to twist out every fact, fretting over whether there was another source I could call, another avenue I could explore to make the story as complete and fair as I could.

Conversations and debate about the accuracy and balance of a story was a near-daily occurrence in the newsroom. Still, even after all that, I’ve called my editor many a time, hours after I’d gone home or shortly before press time, to put one more sentence or quote or factoid into a story to make it better and more balanced.

The same is true of most every reporter I’ve worked with. And I expect nothing less of my reporters here at The News.

But reporters do have biases.

One, we’re a sucker for a good story. Most of us find our way into this nerve-wracking, low-paying, high-stressing business because we’re wannabe novelists, and newspapering is an easier way to get paid to put words on paper.

So, when a good story comes along, something with a unique hook or a bit of tension or a solid narrative, we hunger for it. We chase it with fervor and we tell it with gusto, and I’m sure our love for the work probably – hopefully – comes through in our storytelling.

Journalists are also partial to the truth, and we demand complete transparency from public officials and public entities. So, when we have reason to believe that a public official is withholding a document or some piece of data that would get us closer to the truth, we chase after that, too. We hammer, chisel and chip away at the barriers until we get there.

I’m sure that, if a reader dislikes the subject of whatever narrative we chase, they could see us as favoring that subject. If they like whatever public agency or official we’re chiseling for the truth, they could see us as picking on them.

But we just wanna tell a good, true story.

And those debates about whether we’re covering all the angles and getting all the facts and reporting in a balanced way? They still happen on those stories we hunger for. They happen especially on those stories we hunger for.

When we know we’re excited for the story, we have to check ourselves and spend extra time ensuring we’ve done all we can to guarantee it’s a worthwhile story and it’s fair and factual, that we’re hungry for the story and not just hungry for the chase.

We may not hit the mark every single time, but every single time, we strive to get it right.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.