How to ‘save’ journalism

Throw a rock in a crowd and there’s a significant chance it’ll hit somebody who thinks journalism needs to be saved.

I believe, today, there are more people in the world who believe journalists are generally untrustworthy and bad at their jobs than those who feel otherwise.

I also believe that those people are wrong. The state of journalism is at an all-time high. It’s easier now to reach primary sources, verify facts, and provide clean copy than ever.

The message is better than it’s ever been. There are just exponentially more messengers out there, so there’s always one to shoot when you’re in the mood.

MJGA: “Save Journalism”

Journalism ain’t what it used to be. You’re damn right it ain’t. 

I bust my ass every day reading and parsing quantum physics papers, machine learning code, and doing the type of research that most of my predecessors avoided in lieu of “networking.” My daily due diligence looks like a doctorate’s defense compared to what journos did 20 years ago. 

Journalists of yesteryear were storytellers whose bias was so complete that, typically, once a reporter committed to a bent, they stuck with it for the duration of their careers.

If, for example, you think Hunter S. Thompson or Samuel Clemens were “unbiased” journalists, then I would submit that you’re ignorant about history in a way that should prevent you from deserving a seat in this debate.

“Fake news” has been around since the advent of politics, propaganda, and bullshit-for-profit.

What’s changed is the times. When American journalists in the 1950s reported about the evils of homosexuality, the laziness of non-whites, and the hysterical nature of women, they weren’t reporting the truth any more than a journalist today who reports that Jewish space lasers are responsible for forest fires.

Most people just didn’t have the resources to fact-check or challenge the bias of professional journalists in the days before computers. It’s not like Johnny Citizen was tracking down a primary source in the days before portable phones and personal computers. 

If a scientist or trusted politician said it was so, and a reporter reported it, the public tended to believe it. That hasn’t really changed. What has, is the number of reporters willing to buck the status quo.

Today, for example, there are still scientists who believe dumb shit. Read some tweets from Pedro Domingos or Google Nick Bostrom’s recent “apology” wherein he fails to condemn eugenics because he’s very clearly ignorant about how science works. 

And there are still journalists who’ll happily peddle their crap because they agree with it.

Luckily, there are also still journalists who’ll call them out for their idiocy and bullshit. There’s a huge difference between nonsense and news-sense. It’s up to individual journalists and the editors they work with to decide where the lines lie.

And, despite what angry tech bros who don’t like the way journos talk about their work would have you think, there’s almost never a clearly-defined line between truth and opinion.

A thought experiment

Here’s a really easy thought experiment that explains why “unbiased” journalism is a myth.

Scenario: you walk outside, see a dog and walk back inside.

Experiment: write a news headline describing what happened.

You might be tempted to write “I walked outside and saw a dog, then I walked back inside.

But that sentence provides no “news.” There isn’t any context. Nobody knows what this means to them or why you’re writing about it. It’s useless.

So you might change it to “Dog outside of person’s home, here’s what you need to know.

But now that’s clickbait. There’s no reason why anyone should read that story other than out of sheer curiosity as to why anyone would write about something so mundane.

Why is this story interesting?

Well, the answer to that question is everything when it comes to journalism. Because, despite what armchair politicians seem to think, it’s not possible to just cover everything that happens and let the general public sort out what’s important.

There are literally infinite things happening in the universe at a given moment. Today I could write about the spooky-ass partnership between DARPA and Microsoft quantum that just went down. I could write about Hunter Biden. I could write about “what it’s like to be a queer man in Mexico.” I could write about literally anything.

What I choose to write about, and what I don’t, are both influenced by my innate personal bias.

And, when a popular journalist decides to “break” news, every other journalist has the option to cover that same news. But, if one journalist already covered something “without bias,” then why would we need a second journalist to cover the same news?

Shouldn’t we just have one journalist, one politician, one teacher, and one celebrity? Couldn’t they just inform, lead, educate, and entertain all of us? Why do we need more than one of anything? 

Clutch your pearls journalism naysayers, because I’m going to shock your socks off when I explain why: because a single human being cannot provide perspective on a given event for all of humanity.

Alex Jones, the journalist, doesn’t speak for or to me. His perspective is a steaming pile of dinosaur shit, as far as I’m concerned. So, if Alex Jones breaks a political story, I don’t want to hear what he has to say. I want someone else to cover that story. Whoever is second in line after Alex Jones scoops everyone else, send me their story.

That’s me using my Constitutionally-given right to freedom of association to navigate the Constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of the press (those outside of the US should apply that in whatever terms make the most sense to them).

It’s your job, as a consumer, to decide whose perspective you want to engage with. It’s my job, as a journalist, to decide what’s interesting about a given topic, that’s how I gain the perspective I share with you.

Some journalists are in-it-to-win-it. By that, I mean they’re going to write whatever the hell they think you, the reader, want to read. Does Alex Jones really believe the Sandy Hook tragedy didn’t happen? Or does he think that’s what his audience wants to hear?

Who cares? No matter your opinion on the matter, at the end of the day he’s still a “journalist” just as surely as John Wayne Gacy was a birthday clown.

Sure, they both give their professions a bad name — and no, I don’t see a problem in comparing the two men, thanks for asking — but not everyone who shares an employment sector with a lunatic is, themselves, a lunatic.

If you listen to Alex Jones and think “look at this biased crap! Journalists are the worst. Someone needs to fix journalism!” I’d argue that the problem isn’t with my profession, it’s with your choice in media consumption.

The same goes for anyone who thinks CNN, NYT, WaPo, or Fox News is indicative of “what’s wrong with journalism.” There’s nothing wrong with journalism. You just don’t like and/or agree with some journalists. That’s how it’s supposed to work when there’s a free press. 

In rebuttal, the journalism naysayers will say that ALL journalists should be unbiased. They’ll agree that Alex Jones is bad but, they’ll declare, so too are all the other biased journalists.

To which, I will say, isn’t that cute. You did a thought.

Bias doesn’t work like you think it works

Here’s the problem with “unbiased journalism.” It doesn’t exist. All humans are biased. Any journalist who claims to write unbiased work is either ignorant or lying.

Even “the dog was brown” is a biased statement. By recording such information, a journalist is implying that it’s an important detail. It might not be evident when we’re describing a dog, but context and lack-of-context always matter and both are expressions of bias.

It becomes clear when we apply such “unbiased reporting” techniques to humans. “Local man wins lottery” shows a different bias than “brown man wins lottery.” But both show bias.

In order to remove all bias, we’d need to reduce every statement to the equivalent of grammatical absolute-zero.

  • “local” is a subjective term, who gets to define it? Who are we writing this for if not “locals?” We should remove the extraneous information lest we make a political statement on geography: “Man wins lottery.”
  • “man” is a subjective term. It’s political to define “manhood” in the context of an age-restricted event. Who gets to say when a boy becomes a man? How many roads must they walk down? This sentiment expresses political bias. Let’s reduce our risk and go with “Person wins lottery.”
  • “wins” is also a poor choice of words. Technically speaking, the lottery “awards” “prizes.” To claim that a person can “win” would be to make implications about the nature of odds-based financial transactions. Let’s go with “Person awarded cash prize by state lottery commission.”
  • Uh oh, “Person awarded cash prize by state lottery commission” sounds like someone who DIDN’T “win” the lottery somehow received a payout. It kinda sounds like the commission did something wrong. Back to the drawing board!

When you extrapolate that to the infinite gamut of potential news stories, it becomes clear the only way to avoid unintentional bias is to be sincerely biased

Here’s another thought experiment: 

Which is unbiased? “President Trump deplanes with toilet paper stuck to his shoe.” or “President Trump touches down in DC ahead of busy work day.” Both are fact-based. Both are biased.

Anyone who refuses to recognize that bias, or who believes neither headline has a place in journalism, is ignorant or arguing for a moderated press.

You can’t please everyone. You can’t cater to everyone’s bias. And people who think they want unbiased journalism are the hardest to please because they lack a basic understanding of the concept of bias.

Every word we choose or don’t, the format we structure our articles around, the sources we reach out to or don’t, the length of the piece, the art we accompany it with, and the quotes we choose to include or not… all of these choices are defined either by intentional or unintentional bias. There is no option for removing bias.

There are no “truths” in journalism. There are facts, but it’s impossible to present them without bias.

In other words

When the bias of a reporter aligns with your own, it’s like you’re wearing bias-canceling headphones. But, when it doesn’t, it’s like someone just turned off your white-bias noise machine at 3AM to talk about something you disagree with — all you can hear is their unwelcome bias.

So, when hundreds of tech CEOs collectively whine about the need to “save” journalism, it’s worth thinking about their bias.

In the case against “biased journalism,” they’re also in-it-to-win-it. I’ve never had a tech CEO get pissed off at me for praising their company’s work.

They’re angry when our bias is antithetical to theirs and ready to nominate us for a Pulitzer when it isn’t.

Nobody needs to fix journalism. It’s working precisely as it should. You might not like the songs we all sing, but that doesn’t give you the right to define how the music should sound. 

Some folks think “rap” isn’t music and others wouldn’t be caught dead listening to a country song. I’ve heard classical music called boring and watched as heavy metal and girl pop were both blamed for everything that’s wrong with the world.

Journalism is just fine. You’re not supposed to agree with every journalist or outlet. If you only want journalists who sing the songs you like — who write the stories you want to read — your time would be put to far better use advocating for fascism or socialism than trying to “fix journalism.”

As long as there are free journalists, we’re obligated to speak freely.


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