Student guest post: Bias in journalism can be a positive force

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Amanda Hayes is a senior journalism major specializing in editing and graphic design. She is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel, and she plans to attend law school in the fall.

Journalism students are taught to deliver information objectively. Objectivity is an important journalistic principle, and it is a form of professionalism. But is it necessarily wrong to be a little biased if circumstances dictate it? Could a little bias actually be a positive push forward in journalism?

In the 1950s, Americans were on edge about a possible impending nuclear attack. Tensions between the United States and the USSR were reaching explosive levels, and everyone was suspicious of each other.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy was perhaps the most prominent figure during the Red Scare. McCarthy accused many innocent people of having ties to Communism.  He referenced distorted evidence or didn’t bother to provide any evidence at all.

Once people were accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers, they were blacklisted, and no one wanted anything to do with them. This led to problems in the workforce and the community as the accused had a hard time finding a job and their neighbors shunned them. Some believe that one man was mostly responsible for the downfall of McCarthyism.

Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow spoke out against McCarthy on his show “See It Now,” a half-hour program that covered controversial issues. During the episode of “See It Now” titled “A Report on Joseph McCarthy,” Murrow showed clips of McCarthy’s speeches and pointed out the times when McCarthy contradicted himself. At the end of the episode, Murrow invited McCarthy on the show to respond to the criticism. Three weeks later, McCarthy appeared on the show. It did not go well for him.

Murrow had to persuade CBS to air the special. CBS executives were hesitant to do so because Murrow had taken such a strong stance on a risky issue. McCarthy could easily claim that Murrow and others at CBS were Communist sympathizers because they disagreed with him.

The special aired, and Murrow’s report was called a turning point in television. Murrow clearly took a side against McCarthy and expressed his disgust and contempt for the senator. The anger in Murrow’s report alone was biased. Yet Murrow was commended for his bravery and integrity. In this case, a little bias was positive. Even more, a little bias from a journalist in particular was positive.

Murrow was a trusted figure in journalism, and he had built up years of credibility. It was fitting for him to be the one to represent the thoughts of almost every American. An ordinary American could have made the same points as Murrow but he or she would have likely been overlooked or successfully discredited by McCarthy. But because Murrow was a trusted journalist, he was able to take McCarthy down with his reports and thus be a positive force for the American public.

Murrow is evidence that sometimes bias can be positive in the newsroom. In certain cases — like during McCarthyism — when there is a corruption and the general public is being disregarded, journalists need to step up and become more than just devices.

Some journalists need to not only deliver the news, but also be the voice in the news. Many times being the voice in news requires losing objectivity. Therefore, it is not always wrong to be biased in journalism, and sometimes it can be for the better.


One Comment

  1. I think this may apply to this topic. I visited with the 91 year old mother of a friend over the weekend. Mom had been having a bout of depression and was easily angered, and reported this to her doctor.
    He asked if she had been watching Fox News, and when she replied yes, he prescribed never watching that network again. She took his advice and a light tranquilizer and has been much better ever since.
    Watching Fox News may be hazardous to your health.

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