BROOM: Bias properly understood
The Cavalier Daily is accused of bias more often than it should be
Bias is a topic I’ve written about a few times in my tenure as Public Editor for The Cavalier Daily. Previously, each time I’ve written about it after readers posed questions, comments or complaints about bias in the paper. Sometimes the complaints or comments were about Opinion columns and so were easily dismissed. Other times I took seriously issues raised about possible bias in news writing and offered my opinion: that what some took as evidence of bias I understood to be less-than-ideal reporting.
Other readers don’t always agree with me about that. One of my concerns about the accusations of bias is that it will chill the news reporting on the parts of the staff of The Cavalier Daily. I think most of the (usually anonymous) comments left online that accuse the paper of biased reporting are made in the hopes that future reporting will be altered to avoid such comments. Too often, it seems to me, cries of bias are levied when someone disagrees with either the information in the article or in some cases with whoever may have been quoted in the article with the hope that such an article won’t be written again in the future.
John Connolly wrote about bias in a different context a few days ago. In many ways, though, it illustrates the problems with how we use bias in current discussions. Connolly explored issues of teachers and professors introducing bias into their teaching. In this context, and really in the context of commenters online on The Cavalier Daily, bias is only used to refer to someone’s stance on political issues. It would be odd for someone to claim that the professor of their Shakespeare course was biased because she preferred Macbeth to Othello among the dramas. It would not be odd anymore to hear someone say that her history professor was biased because he felt tighter gun control laws could increase public safety. Connolly goes on to note “the University has done a fair job of attracting liberal and conservative professors…” This gets at the same sort of point commenters on the Cavalier Daily website seem to be after; focusing on a set of political beliefs often to the exclusion of assessing whether the person is still effective at his job or increasing his perceived representation of his own political beliefs, either on faculty or in the paper.
One of the reasons I don’t think bias is a problem in the news writing at The Cavalier Daily is that there is quite a lot of effective reporting across a huge range of topics. Further, even if one were to focus only on political reporting, there are many dispassionate, thorough reports about what has happened in our community. One must assess the whole of the work in order to determine whether bias has an effect.
Similarly, when one examines the work of a professor, one must look at all of the work. If a professor is shutting down alternative ideas and insisting that only what she believes is correct (and I’m not writing here about, say, a mathematical equation that may well have one correct answer), then she is a bad teacher regardless of any bias. In interactions with students, professors should try to encourage creative, independent thought, but to believe that professors should remain dispassionate all the time and keep their own beliefs entirely out of any conversation is to remove some of what makes college worth doing. Exploring those different ideas and challenging one’s own currently held beliefs is an important part of learning. It’s also a key part of what The Cavalier Daily offers its readers: opinions they might not hold and information they may not know.
Too often we look for bias in terms of a set of opinions or positions about a fairly narrow range of topics we have defined as being political in our current social discourse. Having a different opinion or holding a different position than someone doesn’t mean that that person is biased. A good news writer is able to write a story about topics he or she has strong feelings about and remain detached enough to offer an objective story. A good teacher is able to encourage his or her students, engage in debate and assess assignments fairly regardless of her opinions about particular issues. If a writer produces a story that is unfairly biased or a teacher unfairly lowers a grade or cuts off intellectual pursuits, then that individual is a bad professional. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with political opinions.
Christopher Broom is the Public Editor for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CDpubliceditor.