What passes for neutrality in the Press

The Retractionwatch website recently posted a story discussing the ethics of a freelance NY Times reporter, Tracy Tullis, who first pitched and then wrote a story about the (mis)treatment of an elephant by the Bronx zoo.  My point in this post has nothing to do with the elephant, however. It has to due with the policy of the NY Times to coerce its authors to dishonestly pretend to be neutral when they are not. It has to do with a policy apparently intended to mislead its readers.

After the Times ran the story, it was told by the zoo that Ms. Tullis was a signatory to a petition asking the zoo to send the elephant to a more humane location. The Times then apologized to their readers for what they viewed as a journalistic misdeed, noting that allowing Ms. Tullis to author an article after signing such a petition was antithetical to the Times’ “journalistic standards.”

Retractionwatch then allowed Tullis to provide her version of the story. Here is small piece of what she said:

 The New York Times Ethical Journalism handbook, which I received six months ago when I wrote my first freelance article for The Times, warns that writers should do nothing that “might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news”: no donations to political candidates, no marches or rallies, no buttons or bumper stickers.

The Times wants reporters to avoid the appearance of partisan views. There appears to be nothing in the policy about reporters avoiding actually having partisan views. Nor can the Times expect its reporters to be ciphers.

Ms. Tullis reports in her Retractionwatch piece:

The other day I checked my trashed emails for “thanks for signing!” messages, and I found that last April, the month I added my name to the Happy [the elephants name] petition, I also clicked petitions against greyhound racing, wolf puppy fur farms, and deadly wild animal traps; and in favor of protecting prairie dogs, polar bears, and pitbulls.

Ms. Tullis clearly has strong opinions about these issues. The Times would prefer that she learn to stop signing petitions on issues on which she has strong opinions so that the Times can pretend she is neutral. But Ms. Tullis states, and should be admired for doing so, that she tried to present a fair and balanced story, and isn’t that what counts?

Of course she is correct about what should count. But there are two ways for the Times to handle the fact that its reporters are biased, just as everyone is biased on certain subjects. It would be optimal, in my opinion, for the readers to know her overall views on this and other subjects on which she reports. It would be easy for reporters to say that they hold strong views on a subject on which they writing, and let the reader judge whether the story seems biased. That would be informative to the reader.

Instead, the Times policy wants to have the bias of its reporters hidden from view. It wants its reporters to not give money to candidates with whom they strongly agree, to not sign petitions, to not take public positions. In other words, it wants its reporters to project a false image by pretending to have no views. Is this really the way to present “unbiased” stories? Does the Times actually want unbiased stories?

I am doubtful. My bias is in favor of small government, balanced budgets, freedom, and promoting  individualist, not group, behavior. This is the opposite of the Times’ bias. Even with my bias, however, I would have the same criticism of a libertarian or conservative newspaper that tried to have its reporters act neutral when they did not feel that way.

It seems simple enough to have reporters spend a line or two providing some insight into their biases, like I just did. Readers could judge for themselves whether or not the reporters were able to  overcome bias in their articles. Surely, full information is better for readers than having reporters pretending to be unbiased by superficially hiding the biases that, let’s face it, are resident in all human beings.

One of the key byproducts of such a policy, assuming that reporters did not lie about their views, is that readers of the newspaper would discover whether there was actually any diversity of opinion among the reporters. The editors might be embarrassed by evidence that all their reporters thought alike. It might actually bring some balance in the reporting of “news.”

What a concept.