I have been spending a great deal of time lately reading and thinking about journalism's code of ethics, and the notion that journalism should be "unbiased". It's a very practical issue for me at the moment, as I develop guidelines for the online news site The Atlanta Tortoise.
One of the decisions I have to make involves my own political behavior. I've always been politically active, both in my community and online. I've also frequently contributed money to political campaigns and organizations involved in advocacy. News organizations generally prohibit employees from publicly expressing political opinions outside the editorial pages. The Associated Press, for example, includes the following language in The Associated Press Stylebook 2013 (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law) :
Anyone who works for the AP must be mindful that opinions they express may damage the AP's reputation as an unbiased source of news. They must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum, whether in Web logs, chat rooms, letters to the editor, petitions, bumper stickers or lapel buttons, and must not take part in demonstrations in support of causes or movements.
Before the Tortoise begins publication, I have to develop a policy on my own political pronouncements and activities, and stick to it. I doubt that whatever I come up with will be as restrictive as the AP policy, but on the other hand reporting on local campaigns while playing an active role in them could undermine the credibility of the publication.
A second issue regarding bias is the content of the news itself. There is a whole political cottage industry monitoring the real or perceived bias of various news outlets. In reality, there is no way to avoid bias, because as soon as a publication decides to report one story, and ignore another, it is exhibiting a bias. It has made a decision that one story is worth reporting, and the alternative story isn't. Balance is another concept related to bias. It is easy to come up with absurd examples to show that some degree of bias is necessary when attempting to balance opinions on an issue. Should a spokeperson from the Flat Earth Society be invited to comment on articles related to earth science? Should a Ku Klux Klan leader be given a spot on discussions of race relations? My answer to both these question would be no, and in fact I'd draw the boundaries even more narrowly. Some people and organizations don't have input worth including, and writers and editors should be making decisions about how many viewpoints to include in a story on a particular topic.
The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists doesn't use the word "bias" and only uses the word "balance" in an unrelated context. It does hint at it in the following lines, though:
Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
These are both reasonable statements, although neither gives a very clear guide for behavior.
So it might be a good idea to back up and ask a basic question. Why is bias a bad thing? The primary negative outcome of bias is that it often causes distortion of the truth by filtering out information which runs counter to the preconceptions of a writer or editor. In the cognitive sciences it's known under a variety of names, depending on the specific example, including "confirmation bias", "cognitive dissonance", and "selective exposure". Sue Ellen Christian, a researcher in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University, wrote a paper entitled Cognitive Biases and Errors as Cause—and Journalistic Best Practices as Effect.
The abstract of her paper states:
This article argues that basic ethical principles of U.S. journalism as described in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics are the result of, and a response to, cognitive bias and error. Cognitive biases and errors necessitate journalistic best practices to correct or attenuate them. Social cognitive processes explored include stereotyping, confirmation bias, and attribution. These concepts are noteworthy because each may be activated by the practice of journalism, and each has been shown to be susceptible to attenuation through specific practices. The article concludes with ideas for integrating cognition into journalism education.
I think this is the key to developing a reasonable principle around both bias and balance. Journalists can't be expected to eradicate their biases, and they can't be expected to achieve perfect balance in a story. What they can do is understand their own biases, and to take steps to avoid those biases affecting the accuracy and completeness of their articles. The existing codes of ethics and policies attempt to do this by setting up simple rules. Focusing on why bias is often detrimental to good journalism, and techniques for recognizing and, if need be, circumventing those biases could be a more productive approach than any concise code of ethics.