Bias. It’s such a charged word these days, and it’s overused nearly to the point of meaninglessness. Oh, you’re a liberal? You’re too biased to write about healthcare then. Conservative? Don’t even try to report on gun control.
But, in its broadest sense, “bias” is a useful term to describe the preference or prejudice that a supposedly neutral party displays towards one side of a contested issue.
It’s also public enemy No. 1 in The Cavalier Daily newsroom. In fact, bias is so reprehensible that the entirety of my media ethics training as a new writer was on the various Cav Daily policies designed to avoid it.
[Looking back on it I am alarmed that I received no ethical training in reporting on marginalized communities, sexual assault or mental health, but I don’t have enough space to go into that today.]
If you’re an objective writer — basically anyone not on opinion, humor or the business side — that means you can’t do things like write a story about an organization you’re also a part of or endorse candidates in student elections.
I have to admit they’re pretty good guidelines, and they suited me well. At first.
Because I enjoyed the articles I wrote for Health & Science so much my first year, I moved to the News section the next year in order to write more often. I started covering more contentious topics, from pipelines to the 2016 presidential election, and I was more diligent than ever in my commitment to voice all sides, regardless of the facts and regardless of my own beliefs.
Then I was elected Health & Science editor along with Jess Chandrasekhar. I didn’t know her well but we ended up making a strong team, and together we doubled the size of our section and started to produce almost daily content. I was really proud, but I was also deeply troubled.
In spite of the significant increase in Health & Science articles, there were still a lot of stories we were missing. Jess and I were both biology students with good connections in the medical center, and we realized most of our stories were about biology and medical research just because we generally had no idea what was happening in, say, the Engineering School or the math department. We tried fielding more story ideas from our writers, but we clearly hadn’t recruited passionately enough in other STEM departments either.
We had enough leads to occupy all of our writers with the subjects we knew, and I’m sad to say I rarely pushed myself to find the stories that I was unfamiliar with but were just as worthy of being told. I was a student first and then an editor, and I never felt like I had the time to pursue the hard leads or do the grunt work behind assigning the kinds of investigative pieces I’d been so excited to write my first year on the paper.
And that’s how it happened. I committed the deadly sin of bias — not in the way I wrote my stories, but in how I chose which ones were told.
A “parting shot” is, in its oldest definition, an arrow shot by a retreating enemy. It is intended to sting. So, here’s my shot: as much as I love The Cavalier Daily, I think bias is actually our primary weakness as an organization.
There are a lot of voices on Grounds that are not represented or that are disproportionately represented, on both the opinion side and the objective side. Our focus on generating ad revenue and social media clicks skews our coverage towards more popular, sensational or gruesome topics. Given the ever-present threat of violent racism in Charlottesville — in addition to the prevalence of sexual violence and mental health issues common to all college campuses — the manner and timing of our reporting directly affects student safety in ways we must be more conscious of and responsive towards.
Since I’ve left my role as editor, I’m happy to say I have seen an improvement in many of these areas. Given this and all the things we’ve always done well — the way a very brave group of News writers and editors covered Aug. 11 and 12, the diligence with which we’ve covered every scandal from Rolling Stone to Otto Warmbier, the rigorous editing and fact-checking process that keeps us at the newsroom until 2 a.m. many nights — I’m quite prideful of what I and my fellow writers and editors have done at The Cavalier Daily. We can hold this pride in one hand while pursuing greater equity and empathy in the other.
As journalists, we have a responsibility to hold powerful institutions accountable and to give voice to the systematically silenced. This isn’t bias — it’s context.
Kate Lewis was a Health and Science Editor for 128th term of The Cavalier Daily.