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Panel discusses political bias in mainstream media

Kate Antonacci | Friday, April 1, 2005

Notre Dame faculty and distinguished guests debated bias in the media and offered suggestions to students interested in preserving truth in journalism Thursday evening in the Eck Center Auditorium.

A panel discussion entitled “After Objectivity: What Moral Norms Should Govern News Reporting?” was presented by the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy and The Thomas J. White Center on Law & Government.

Panelists included William Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; Kenneth Woodward, religion editor and senior writer for Newsweek magazine; Marco Darbazzi, U.S. correspondent for ANSA, an Italian news agency; and Matt Storin of the media relations division of Notre Dame Public Relations and Information and former editor of the Boston Globe.

Robert Dunikoski, editor-in-chief of the Notre Dame Journal of Law, opened the event by describing the goal of his publication to examine public policy with Judeo-Christian values.

Paolo Carozza, panel moderator and member of the Notre Dame Law School faculty, opened by addressing the issue of bias and honesty in the news.

“There have been some very serious problems in the area of media,” he said.

Carozza said problems range from personal failings of reporters to efforts of systematic attempts to fabricate entire perspectives.

Panelists described today’s media and the role of balanced news coverage.

Donohue, the first speaker, opened his talk by saying although many postmodernists today disregard the concept of truth, the idea is essential in journalism.

“As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a journalist and not interested in pursuing the truth, then you should leave,” he said.

Donohue said today’s society is almost worse than in the past in its journalistic integrity because the climate makes inconsistency and dishonesty seem acceptable. He did say, however, that there is more accountability today and that one is “less likely to get away with it.”

Donohue said consistency is crucial in reporting and cited many examples of past journalists who were “ideologically disturbed.”

Donohue also addressed the issue of liberal bias in the media, citing statistics that demonstrated a strong liberal tilt.

“We have this enormous gap of perception of people in media,” he said. “They think of themselves as moderate.”

Woodward then spoke about the role of different news mediums in society today.

“For better or worse, we’re stuck with newspapers, magazines, television, radio,” he said. “You can opt out of it, but how will you know what is going on?”

While he does not use the word objectivity, as it “suggests disinterestedness,” he does believe in intelligent subjectivity, well-informed journalists, accuracy and finding truth and meaning in a story.

“Objectivity should mean and can mean no advocacy in the reporting,” Woodward said.

Woodward also said that magazine writers and editors look for a story line and controlling themes.

“Journalism is not a science and not an art, but it is a craft,” he said. “Morality in journalism has much to do with our commitment to the language.”

Bardazzi then gave a short presentation entitled “Four Elections and a Funeral,” in which he discussed four elections in the past year in which the media incorrectly predicted outcomes. He cited the Democratic primary elections, the presidential election in Afghanistan, the 2004 U.S. presidential election and the Jan. 3 Iraq presidential election as instances where foreign correspondents “failed in just twelve months to tell the story right.”

Bardazzi said many in Europe expected John Kerry to win the U.S. presidential election in November.

“The Italians went to bed sure that John Kerry would be the next president of the United States,” he said. “It was impossible [for it to go another way] and so we believed that story-and we were wrong.”

Bardazzi also said journalists are often “detached from the real men,” which can lead to incorrect ideas presented in their writing.

Bardazzi concluded by saying there are two ways to be a journalist.

“Either we inform to set people free or inform to produce consent,” he said. “We need to stay in front of these realities.”

Storin began by saying objectivity can only be discussed in a country with a free press system.

“You just hope the reporters get the facts straight,” he said.

Storin said the news operations department gets plenty of things wrong that are not just ideological.

“In my time as a journalist, 80 percent of criticism that a newspaper received was colored by the prism of the critic,” Storin said. “Passion and opinion in a reporter are not, per se, a bad thing if controlled.”

Storin discussed liberal bias in the media, adding that when he took over as editor of the Boston Globe in 1993, he set out to change its obvious liberal bias.