A recent PewForum “number of the day” highlighted the percentages of viewers (of certain news programs) who consider news coverage to be (quite) biased. For example, 90% of Sean Hannity viewers believe regular news coverage is biased (only 60% of NPR viewers hold this view). On the one hand, I find this quite sad–not for reasons you might initially expect. The truth, as I see it, is that our (inescapable) biases generate the questions we ask and direct our attention so that we can report at all. In other words, if we didn’t have interests that shape our actions (in this case reporting), we couldn’t make the decisions needed to “bring the news.” So, in one way, I’m not all that interested or incensed to learn that certain people view regular news coverage as biased: welcome to life, people; glad you could join us.
On the other hand, I know the kind of weight that the word “bias” carries because the widespread (scientifically generated and backed) idea is that there are “objective” stances–you know, the ones that present fact, not opinion. So to report on bias supposedly indicates that, for example, 90% of Hannity viewers are more skeptical of regular news coverage because of the biases present in those news outlets. Presumably, these 90% also have access to “objective news coverage”, say, from the “No Spin Zone” (I know, that is O’Reilly), which is their way of judging the bias they observe.
My comment on that is not “welcome to life” but “wake up!” The task we have as responsible citizens who digest news is not to find our way behind some impenetrable wall of objectivity, appealing to indisputable facts from our approved news source that prove our point. Rather, I believe, our task is to wade through the biases that generate our “facts” (from the news source and from ourselves) and determine which perspectives are better and thus more worth our time and attention for informing our actions and decisions. The criteria for “better” is which presentation of the information has more explanatory power on its way to encouraging the flourishing of human life.
In other words, admitting that there are inescapable biases in all that we say and do does not thereby lead to a paralyzing relativism. Some biases are better to adopt: they have more explanatory power and provide more robust avenues to the flourishing of human life. Not every bias is created equal (I prefer the bias of “equality,” however complex and troubled to live into, over the bias of “racism” or “sexism”). Still, let’s not pretend we don’t have biases–as if the news program we report for, our own personal histories, our religious and political affiliations, and our social location have nothing to do with our work, whether we report the news or preach on Sunday. We are profoundly prejudiced (biased) people by virtue of living life at all: may we adopt the biases that lead to what is good, beautiful, and just, that is, the fullness of human living. And find the news sources (and religious communities) that promote such a posture.