There has been a lot of talk in recent months about “fake news” and bias in the media. Now, I won’t say there is absolutely no bias in the media or that there aren't media organizations which are skewed one way or another on certain issues. There are issues with corporately owned media, and reporters are human beings with innate bias which is bound to be reflected in their writing sometimes.
However, I think the largest issues surrounding all of the cries of “fake news” and “bias” are not instances of actual reporting of incorrect information or bias in news reports. I think readers don’t always understand or acknowledge the difference between opinion columns (such as this one) and actual news reports.
The ultimate goal for media professionals is to present the truth. Our duty is to present the facts of a situation and allow readers to draw their own conclusions based on those facts. Perhaps there are individuals who have some ulterior agenda with their writing, but it is a gross overgeneralization to say that “the media” as a universal entity presents lies to its readers on purpose and without remorse.
News organizations do sometimes publish the opinions of their reporters, editors and guest columnists, but these articles are not presented as news or fact. They are labeled as “opinion,” “editorial,” “analysis,” “review,” or some other denotation to indicate the story to follow is based on the opinion of the writer. People don’t always pay close enough attention to what they are reading to realize that these articles are not meant to be taken as objective articles.
In a print publication, it is perhaps easier to make this distinction. An opinion column or editorial column would be printed in the opinion section. Reviews and analyses even in other sections could be accompanied by a photo of the writer, which ties their identity to the piece. Online, these distinctions may not be as obvious, as the general layout of stories tend to be similar.
It is the duty of the publication to denote when a story is based on a writer’s opinion, but it is equally the duty of the reader to know what they are reading. On an even more basic level, it is the duty of the reader to read beyond the headline of a story to understand what is really being discussed. A headline is a description of what is within a story, not a statement of the publication’s view on the subject.
If readers do not want any bias inserted into the media they consume, then media organizations are trusting them to draw their own conclusions based on the facts presented. If readers can be trusted to draw their own conclusions based on their own analysis of the facts, they should be paying close enough attention to what they are reading to be able to discern whether or not they are reading an opinion piece.
These principles apply to broadcast media as well. Audience members have to be able to discern between a talk show or news analysis and a news report or package. Again, the broadcaster should denote whether the program is based on opinion or not, but the audience member should look for and pay attention to those denotations.
It is also important to note that columns, analyses and reviews don’t necessarily represent the views of the publication. For instance, this piece is not based on the opinion of The East Carolinian, it is based on my own personal opinion, that is why my name is at the top of the article.
What would media organizations stand to gain from purposely lying to their readers and presenting our opinions as the unfiltered truth? We strive to do just the opposite. We want to gain the trust of our readers so that they keep coming back to us for reliable information. If we consistently published “fake news” our readers wouldn’t keep coming back.