Perceived bias

How reporters and editors vote is their business, and the wrong question to ask

A loyal reader – and frequent critic – of The Durango Herald has repeatedly asked that the Herald poll its newsroom employees as to how they vote, presumably to explain or illuminate what he sees as the paper’s liberal bias. It is a request that reflects the projections of many conservatives as well as questionable assumptions about how the media function and the nature of bias.

It is not going to happen. But our critic deserves a response.

For starters, for the Herald to ask editors and reporters how they vote may well be illegal. Under Colorado law, there are protected classes that employers cannot use as the basis for employment decisions. Race, religion and age are familiar examples, but among them is also “legal conduct outside of work.” Voting is indisputably legal.

Herald employees can see what electoral outcome their employer prefers in endorsements on this page. Knowing or even suspecting that they would be asked later how they voted could easily be seen as an attempt at intimidation.

Besides, what would be the point? Surveys conducted by outside groups have found that, at least in presidential elections, most people in most newsrooms nationwide tend to vote Democratic.

That is to be expected. Working journalists are typically young, college-educated and from urban areas – three of the top predictors of voting Democratic.

A better question is: So what?

For if journalists tend to vote for Democrats, it is also true that many lawyers do too, while doctors and members of the military skew toward the GOP. Does that mean Democrats should be wary of physicians or that the Marines would not defend blue states? The suggestion is insulting.

Still, journalists are human, so the problem for journalism is to minimize the extent to which personal opinions color news coverage. It is the subject of considerable discussion.

Some editors and reporters refuse to register or vote lest they allow their opinions to affect their work. But journalists do not surrender their citizenship. And voting is a right.

A better approach is institutional. It involves training, rules, leadership and procedures. At the Herald, an editor assigns stories to a reporter, typically after a larger discussion. And a news story is read by four to six other people after the reporter is finished with it.

No system is perfect. But the idea that reporters follow their whims or that a story merely reflects a reporter’s thinking is simply not true.

The problem for critics focused on media bias is the world is neither one-dimensional nor monochromatic. Of course, reporters and editors have opinions and biases, but why assume they mirror someone else’s?

Not everyone’s core values are principally expressed through politics. And not everyone defines themselves primarily as liberal or conservative. Reporters may be registered with a particular party, but their identity could be grounded in their religion, their athleticism, their relationships – or their own professionalism. Critics focus on political affiliation as if that is the single, defining orientation. But that is only one aspect of a person, and for many, one of the least important.

People are molded and influenced by any number of factors from ethnicity, faith and regional culture to language, family and simple chance. And sometimes the overarching bias is toward nothing more profound than getting home in time for dinner.

Media bias is a real and fascinating issue, but it is not simplistic. And it should not trivialized by reducing it to a bumper sticker.