The Pitfalls of Journalism: Why bias and selective reporting are hurting journalism.

I have now been writing for the Waltonian for several semesters, and, like most other people, am a regular consumer of various journalistic outlets. I truly love working for the Waltonian, and appreciate a lot of the work my fellow writers are doing here. With that in mind, throughout the past few years I have begun to notice several persistent problems within journalism that I believe should be discussed. Journalism, like any other profession, has the possibility of being done poorly, and what makes it all the more dangerous is that it heavily influences how people like myself see the world. In this article, I want to mostly focus on some of the pitfalls of news reporting.

One of the unavoidable parts of being human is bias. No matter how hard we try, we will always see the world in a subjective manner, colored by our experiences and opinions. That can be especially clear in journalism. Though many journalists try to just “present the facts,” even what facts they choose to present is an indication of bias. It is somewhat inevitable– in any news story, it is impossible to give every single detail about a specific incident. This can become a major problem, though, when we ignore facts that are inconvenient to our worldview. Sometimes, even before all of the facts come out about a specific incident, we rush to our own conclusions. 

A prevalent example is the 2019 case of Jussie Smollet– the African-American actor claimed to have been assaulted by men shouting slurs and “MAGA country.” Prominent celebrities and news outlets rushed to express their horror and sympathy– and then, a few months later, it turned out Smollet had made up the entire incident. 

This is not to say that similar assaults have never actually happened– however, in this case, many people allowed their preconceived opinions to inform how they reported about the Smollet case before all the facts emerged (a textbook example of confirmation bias). Our worldviews are all well and good, but they can not be allowed to trump facts. Individual events in our world are not archetypal and representative of every single incident of a similar type. 

A similar pitfall is selective reporting. It is impossible, especially for a school newspaper, to report on every single major news event. However, there were occasions where I thought I detected a major bias in our paper. The Waltonian is demonstratively not opposed to reporting on shootings, but there were two major shootings that they did not report on, even when I volunteered to write the articles– the Covenant School shooting, and the murder of Temple University Police Sergeant Christopher Fitzgerald. Both events were major news stories, but the Waltonian actively refused to report on the Covenant incident, despite it being a major tragedy involving our fellow Christian brothers and sisters, and they never got back to me when I requested to write about Fitzgerald’s murder. 

I want to reiterate: no news outlet can report everything, and this is not meant to be a personal attack on the Waltonian, or anyone running it. However, I do want to suggest that it is very easy for us to avoid talking about events that would force us to reconsider our views about the world. The Waltonian, CNN, BBC, and Time Magazine all reported on the murder of Tyre Nichols, an event where police officers behaved disgracefully– yet, none of those same outlets reported on Christopher Fitzgerald’s murder, who was responding to reports of a robbery when he was shot. Some people believe cops can do no wrong– that is false. But it is equally false to believe that cops can do no right.

Journalism as a field wields great power and responsibility because we rely on it to tell us about events in our world that we have not personally experienced. If I misrepresent those events, it causes them to be misrepresented in the minds of everyone who reads what I write. Even if I am perfectly honest in my journalistic enterprises, however, there remains one more pitfall. What Jesus said about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4 can very easily apply to us: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Knowledge is a burden, and far too often we lay it on others instead of grappling with it ourselves. Especially when journalism intersects with activism, hypocrisy can be a pervasive issue. 

How many journalists or activists who write about, say, shootings, actually take active steps to try to make the issue better– ie, learn first aid, interview law enforcement on how to best respond to such events or take defensive measures in their own lives and teach others to do the same? Merely reporting on shootings doesn’t lower the danger they present– in fact, it often exacerbates the problem because the reports can inspire copycat events. Talking about something is not the same as doing something about it. Being a rabble rouser is not the same as being brave.

The work that journalists do is important– and that is why it is so fraught with danger. There are probably many, many more pitfalls than the ones I have discussed here. Doing well in any field takes hard work, discipline and humility. Remember– there are things you are wrong about. Honesty is more important than protecting your personal worldview. What you say and do has consequences. You have a responsibility to act in a manner pleasing to God and loving to your neighbor.

God bless you.

Sources: 6ABC, CBS 

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