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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Admission of bias

We won’t pretend—but you shouldn’t either

Admission of bias

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

When a U.S. military plane crashed July 10 in rural Mississippi, killing all 16 Marines onboard, nobody tried to balance the account with an obligatory “bright side” of the story. And when Lake Tahoe in California found itself almost running over after several years of regional drought, I didn’t hear a single reporter calling on folks—in a spirit of “fairness”—to moderate their thanksgiving and delight.

Every so often, I take it as part of my journalistic duty to remind readers that objectivity is simply not all that it’s cracked up to be. So I’m saying a few things I’ve said before.

The simple fact is that most of us have adopted some important assumptions well before we’ve picked up the newspaper or turned on our TV. On some topics, we work hard to appear evenhanded. On others, we hang out our prejudices for all to see.

But how do we know which standard to apply in each situation?

Here at WORLD, we walk the same tightrope journalists walk everywhere.

On some stories, like the coverage of a plane crash, reporters can rightly assume that 99.9 percent of any audience will agree with a bias against accidental and even violent death. In similar fashion, we take it for granted here at WORLD that both we and our readers are for spreading the gospel, that we’re against abortion, that we’re for racial harmony, and that we’re against the New York Yankees.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “How did such raw prejudice against one of America’s traditionally great baseball teams get in there?” To which we reply: In the same way that so many other of our biases sneak in. If we didn’t arbitrarily introduce the bias ourselves, we may well have done our permissive part in allowing the bias to flourish and grow.

Here at WORLD, we walk the same tightrope journalists walk everywhere. On one side is the danger of letting all our likes and dislikes spill over into our reporting task. On the other side is the danger of acting clinically sterile about our subject matter.

We used to try to sort this out in some measure by distinguishing between “News” on the one hand and “Commentary” and “Analysis” on the other. Through the years, that got harder. But just by putting significant emphasis on a topic, we were making a statement. Just by including whole pages relating to the abortion issue, for example, we were saying that we think that issue is more important than most other periodicals and radio newscasts seem to suggest by giving so little space and time to it. We’ve all got our biases.

But there’s still a big difference between WORLD and most of its larger counterparts. We not only admit our bias—we’re ready to state right up front what we base that bias on. In our masthead, you’ll see our commitment to the Bible as the standard that should settle all our prejudices. Simply put, if the Bible teaches it, we won’t apologize for including such a bias in our columns—and, perhaps more implicitly, in our news coverage as well. If the Bible doesn’t teach it, we’ll try to exclude such inclinations and preferences from the news stories and reserve them for sections intended as commentary and opinion.

We’re not so naïve as to suppose that such a declaration makes everything easy. Folks will (and do) disagree on what the Bible teaches. But at least it’s a start—and a significant one, given the breadth of the Bible’s interests. All of human relations—gender issues, family life, economics, justice, education, aesthetics, and dozens of other issues—are included.

For some, especially in many of the traditional media, such a commitment seems narrow and doctrinaire. To them, we issue this simple but good-hearted challenge: We’ve been up front with the basis for our bias. Will you tell us now where you get yours? Spell out for us the standard by which you judge airplane crashes bad and a surplus of rain as good.

And if you’re tempted to say that majorities decide such issues, that it’s mostly a matter of consensus among civilized people, then what do you think of the unsettling report a couple of weeks ago that 68 percent of the American people don’t think they can fully trust the mainstream media to tell the truth? Is the majority right on that one too?

Comments

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  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 07/25/2017 09:54 am

    The Nazis and the Communists were excellent at using the media to deceive the majority.

    Everybody has some level of bias, so all I ask is, how important is the truth to the writer?

  • E Cole
    Posted: Tue, 07/25/2017 11:23 pm

    Timely article. I often read the comments people post about news stories and feel like the bias that people worry about so much in news sources is dwarfed by the bias that the readers bring to the articles. Sometimes I wonder if people are even reading the same words I see! We are all guilty and so-called “confirmation bias” seems more evident now than ever.  I think WORLD does a good job overall although there are times I think there are decisions to avoid stories that I would like to see discussed (such as the way Trump is treating Sessions). But I understand and appreciate that an effort is being made to achieve balance and give attention to other matters. It is good to be reminded we should all be committed to following the Bible, instead of pledging allegiance to political parties.