Objectively, no one can ever be unbiased

It’s time to let go of “impartial journalism” and accept that bias is just another fact of life.

Alia Jeraj

With the Minnesota caucus approaching (it’s on March 1, so go out and get involved), many of my friends have taken up canvassing for their favorite candidates. Others have adamantly refused to do so — especially my friends who work in journalism.
 
 
They’d like to canvass, they tell me. It’s just that it would go against either their personal or professional code of ethics to participate in something that could mark their writing as “not objective.”
 
 
While I respect my friends’ obligations to their employers, I find these ideas ridiculous. We need to forever banish the idea of “pure objectivity” to Dante’s ninth and final circle of hell — the one reserved for the treacherous.
 
 
Bias is everywhere. It lies in our syntax and word choice. We organize our stories with bias, creating a hierarchy of the most-to-least important pieces of information. Bias appears in the layout of print publications, the choice of which images appear in color, the structure of websites, the arrangement of their featured stories and the times of programming on radio and TV.
 
 
We show our prejudices in the very stories we choose to write about, displaying bias as we research and reflecting it as we decide which sources to cite and to what extent we want to use them. 
 
 
Perhaps some of the most insidious forms of bias are visible in who is present in newsrooms, who writes stories, who edits them and who presents them.
 
 
We do not live in fishbowls — if we did, there would be no need for journalism at all. Innumerable thoughts, people and events influence us on a daily basis. These experiences shape how we perceive the world. We reflect our personal thoughts and perceptions in the things we produce, whether or not we intend to. 
 
 
This is all to say that even the most skillful, best-intentioned journalist writes with bias. This is no one’s fault. However, it is something we need to acknowledge and accept.
 
 
Rather than pretend or even to try to write without bias, I think journalists and reporters would inform people much more successfully if they were transparent about their positions and their intentions. 
 
 
When we read academic papers or even novels, we are often curious about the author’s identity. “How much of their life are they projecting into this work?” we wonder. “What are their qualifications to write about these subjects?” 
 
 
These questions lead to deeper analyses of the writing, encouraging us to think more critically about the texts we read. Why should we treat journalism any differently?
 
 
If journalists stated their biases for the audience’s benefit, readers could then interpret the story with those biases in mind, provoking thought about the reasons why the reporter told the story in such a way. 
 
 
As a result, rather than leading to a less-informed audience, transparent bias would actually help readers become more knowledgeable. Not only would they understand what they’re reading — they’d also understand its source. And that’s something we should all aspire to. 
 
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].