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Newsroom Diversity Should Include Ideology

By Andy Alexander

UPDATED with Sunday column correction at bottom.

It’s hardly news that Republicans view traditional media as partial. That came through again in the recently released Pew Research Center national survey, which showed that 60 percent of respondents said news organizations are biased.

But a revealing element in the survey is that Democrats increasingly hold the same view. Several years ago, 54 percent of those Democrats surveyed by Pew said that the press tended to be biased. In the most recent survey, that percentage among Democrats jumped to 67.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism says there are several reasons for the shift. “One is Democrats rooting for Obama and not wanting him to be criticized in the press,” he said. “The other is this anxiety among Democrats and liberals that conservative media is having more of an impact.”

I thought of that while going through reader e-mails reacting to my Sunday column that urged The Post to not ignore conservative media. A number of self-described liberals inaccurately said the column was urging The Post’s editors and reporters to buy into the agenda of conservative media. To the contrary, the column said: “The Post should follow its own news standards, not theirs. But it should pay attention to what they report.”

Jerry Ceppos, the respected former vice president for news of the late Knight Ridder newspaper group, addressed the bias question this past Sunday. Writing in the San Jose Mercury News, where he once served as executive editor, Ceppos called for newsrooms to do a better job of understanding the claims of bias, especially from conservatives.

“In fact, most of us haven’t even asked conservative critics exactly what bothers them,” wrote Ceppos, now dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada. “Do we even know what readers mean by ‘bias’? Are they talking about headlines? Or the decisions we make about what to cover and what to ignore? Or whether we use loaded words”?

Surveys of newspaper newsrooms consistently have shown that they are more liberal than the population and that more reporters and editors identify themselves as liberal than conservative.

Journalism professor David H. Weaver, who is part of an Indiana University team that has done authoritative research in this area, wrote several years ago that newspapers have tended to attract “social reformers” who tend to be liberal.

Former Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler seemed to agree with that theory in an e-mail to me last week. He said that newspaper newsrooms were slow to investigate ACORN, the embattled national community action group relentlessly attacked by conservatives and conservative media, “because we see them as working for the betterment of a relatively powerless community, a role that we also embrace ourselves.”

“Clearly this runs counter to the news media’s promise of pursuing the news without favor and reflects a somewhat patronizing attitude toward poorer communities that community organizations serve,” said Fielder, now dean of Boston University’s College of Communication.

News organizations, once led exclusively by white men, long ago embraced gender and race diversity. It was a matter of equality, of course. But it also was a matter of accuracy. With diversity, newsrooms became more attuned to the perspectives of women and the multicultural dimensions of the communities they served.

It’s the same with ideology. News organizations like The Post are more accurate when they are exposed to the range of perspectives among their readers, both print and online.

SUNDAY COLUMN CORRECTION: My Sunday column included a reference to the controversy surrounding White House environmental adviser Van Jones, noting that "Conservatives had attacked Jones for more than a week before the first Post story appeared Sept. 5. He resigned the next day."

That was correct for the newspaper, but failed to note that staffer Garance Franke-Ruta had a piece on The Post's "44" blog early the previous afternoon that began: "White House press secretary Robert Gibbs offered few signs of support at his daily briefing" for Jones. The item was updated several times and formed the foundation for the story in the next morning's newspaper. My apologies.

By Andy Alexander  | September 21, 2009; 1:39 PM ET
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So, in the face of overwhelming evidence that you have lost the trust of your liberal readers, and that a full two thirds of them now feel you present a conservative bias, your response is to tack even further to the right on the premise that all ideological points of view are equally valid?

Posted by: adamiani | September 21, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

"Surveys of newspaper newsrooms consistently have shown that they are more liberal than the population and that more reporters and editors identify themselves as liberal than conservative."

This is a common fallacy. Because more repoters have liberal leanings, these leanings are reflected in the news outlets they work for in some way. Of course, this ignores that most of the executives and owners on the business side of these media outlets are conservative. Are we to assume these managers have no effect on content while lowly reporters control it?

Posted by: rodneythecat | September 21, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

I would be interested in what you as a journalist think about bias. What is bias in story selection and story placement to you? When should a journalist go beyond the facts into commentary when reporting the news? Is selective fact telling bias to you? Does your personal political or economic belief shade your writing? Did you have to have the point of view you have to get the job at WaPo? If you changed your position on an issue and say went from liberal to conservative would your job or acceptance be in jeopardy?

As a reader, I see a remarkable liberal leaning in the news - so much so that I create my own filter and try to balance what I hear from CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC with that of FoxNews. Different than conservative radio, which is biased to the right, I do find Fox to be more common sense to me or in their terms fair and balanced. I recognize the fringe on the right and try to filter that as well. Fox seems to be much more balanced where the other mainstream media seem blatantly liberal.

I hope there are journalistic values that you can identify as "good, honest and fair" and values you can be true to. I hope they cannot be bought or changed simply because a new party is in power. You know what "yellow journalism" is. If you recognized it, are your values strong enough that you wouldn't be a part of it.
BTW, I enjoy WaPo, the columns and the commentary.

Posted by: 2009frank | September 21, 2009 8:51 PM | Report abuse

I think that the diversity that is lacking is not left/right or conservative/liberal; it is the life experience and the resulting point of view. In effect, the problem is narrowness and limiting the number of possible positions, based on the narrow life experiences of those setting up the arena.

As someone who would be considered a Libertarian that votes Republican, issues that I have a strong point of view - gun rights, the use of deadly force in personal confrontations, the structural incompetency of the federal government hiring and promotion process, the elitism of the political leadership in the District, Dan Snyder/Redskins, and the proper definition of combat and how women fit in to it - do not fit into the current simplified left/right continuum.

Discussions of these issues are always seem oversimplified to me, and tend to become food fights where the prevailing liberal bias defines the discussion. The information for the discussion is always limited by the liberal bias.

Try to explain the concept of concealed carry of handguns to somebody that lives in the District and assumes that the existence of guns – not the dysfunctionality of the social order of the neighborhood - is the root cause of the endemic violence.

My perspective says that living in an urban area and/or in poverty does not cause the violence problem. People who have never purchased a firearm, never had one in their home, never carried a loaded firearm, have not gotten themselves prepared to use it when appropriate, and can not conceive of doing any of this as part of their life puts some ideas and experiences beyond the Pale.

True diversity would broaden the discussion by issue, not by defining by a spokesperson by race, gender, age, political party, or some sort of left/right conservative/liberal camp.

Posted by: GHF_LRLTD | September 22, 2009 2:37 AM | Report abuse

I find it quite funny when you talk about media bias.

Were you biased when you provided headlines to all the myths being spread by Republicans and other right-wingers, but there was no mention of the truth in your article (never mind a headline)?

Are the articles in your paper biased when close to 70% of your opinion writers push the same agenda over and over again, resulting in at least 2 favorable opinion articles and/or news stories for a certain position per day?

Even the people who are supposed to be true journalists, not opinion writers, do not report facts, they report what the feel and what they believe.

If you truly believe that media is unbiased then I am truly frightened by what you would see as bias.

Posted by: alysheba_3 | September 22, 2009 3:03 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander's pay masters have obviously given him a mandate to lobby in favor of giving conservative voices more sway in the Washington Post. He begins by attempting to foist on us one of his basic, subjective conclusions as if it's an established fact. That is the idea that since surveys show more liberals in the ranks of newsmen and editors, newspapers' editorial and news content must reflect a liberal bias.

To which I say to Mr. Alexander: Show us the empirical evidence that proves your point. On the face of it, you have slandered your colleagues. You claim that their personal political leanings influence their professional judgments, but you offer no confirming evidence. The rooster crows and the sun comes up. That does not mean that one causes the other.

There is an even more fundamental issue that Mr. Alexander needs to deal with if this debate is to continue: he must define conservative. If he thinks that's a nit-picking matter, he is woefully out of touch with what is going on in this country. Does Mr. Alexander equate conservative with Republican? Even among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, many of those who define themselves as conservatives have serious qualms about being associated with the current Republican Party or have opted out altogether.

Does Mr. Alexander believe that conservatism means:

--Giving greedy and rapacious corporate America carte blanche to engage in unbridled capitalism, no matter the consequences for average Americans?
-- An ever widening economic gap between the super rich few and the rest of America?
-- Giving massive tax cuts to the rich as a means to create more wealth for us all, especially in the wake of clear evidence that it does not work?
--Massive federal subsidies for big business, while begrudging every penny that might be spent on the middle class and the poor?
-- An ever narrowing base of support, so that the faces of conservatism are almost wholly white, and its most solid support is rooted in the states of the old Confederacy?
-- Ignoring the fundamental rights found in the Constitution's Bill of Rights in favor of increasing federal government intrusion into the private lives of Americans--e.g., blanket wiretapping and surveillance, restrictions on the rights of women to make their own decisions about having children, taking away from the states the right to determine who gets a marriage license?
-- Usurping states rights in numerous other ways, such as their right to determine how strong their environmental protection laws should be?
-- In Mr. Alexander's world, is Bob Barr a conservative? (He's not a Republican).

Does Mr. Alexander really advocate giving people who advocate the above a greater say in the news and editorial content of the Washington Post? Does he really believe that giving affluent white Southerners more influence on the Post would serve a positive good?

Posted by: tbarksdl | September 22, 2009 4:49 AM | Report abuse

Looking for loaded words Andrew? How about phrases such as Acorn is "attacked" by "conservatives." Acorn was identified as having a shady organization, similar to complex corporations like Enron and literally syndicated criminal entities.

Would you say that Enron was attacked by mainstream media or that their excesses and crimes were REPORTED or EXPOSED by mainstream media.

What we have seen is honest REPORTING and EXPOSURE -- worthy of mainstream media like 60 Minutes, inventor of the ambush interview and 20/20 and its expose (not attack) on Food Lion.

Fox reported these abuses, they did not attack Acorn with these abuses.

And your columns and ideas and expression remain rot. To this we can add your small minded liberal bias.

Posted by: krush01 | September 22, 2009 6:20 AM | Report abuse

Reading the Pew story shows that large increases in feelings of media bias come from the opinion that the rich and powerful owners of media shape the news.

The more you watch Fox the more you know that the media are immoral and hate America.

The right wing has felt for years that the media is biased. What is driving the increase is the opinion from the left that the media is biased, and not 'Liberal'.

What exactly is the Post's 'news judgement'?

I don't think politically with many of frank2009's opinions on the issues, but I would like an answer to some of his questions:

What is bias in story selection and story placement to you? When should a journalist go beyond the facts into commentary when reporting the news? Is selective fact telling bias to you?

Posted by: grooft | September 22, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Bollocks! As they say across the pond. The mainstream press is a political institution that reflects power--it does not counter it or accurately report on the issues of the day. Health-care "debate" is, with rare exceptions, not covered by stating the facts. I have rarelly seen, for example, an analysis of facts like percentage of GDP spend on health care vs. outcomes and compare it to all other developed countries. This should be central to the debate (if there actually was one).

Also dignifying the conservative point of view even if they say that there is no such thing as evolution or the moon is made of green-cheese degrades our civilization. Today's conservatives are a Know-Nothing party, unfortunately. They make up "facts" that are sheer fantasy and try to make an agenda out of those fantasies. If the Post dignifies these fantasies as possible truths then where are we? There is such a thing as science and rational thought--that should be the agenda, not mollifying liberals or conservatives. In fact, those terms are false anyway--real politics is far more complex though you wouldn't know it by reading the Post.

Posted by: cstahnke | September 22, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

As long as we are discussing diversity, how about diversifying newspaper staffs by adding a few Gentiles. A look at the WaPo listing of editorial page columnists and commentators indicates about 80% are Jewish. The ratios on other newspapers and tv network programs appears to be skewed in a similar manner.

That's not to say that those people aren't well qualified but it does indicate that there is considerable consanguineous tribal loyalties at work in hiring and advancement decisions. Some affirmative action in this area might produce a more balanced perspective from the media.

Posted by: Lazarus40 | September 22, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

"A number of self-described liberals inaccurately said the column was urging The Post’s editors and reporters to buy into the agenda of conservative media. To the contrary, the column said: 'The Post should follow its own news standards, not theirs. But it should pay attention to what they report.'”

Maybe you've exhorted the Post to pay more attention to liberal media like Talking Points Memo, and to DailyKos (which is a bit on the leftist side), but I missed it. Where is your column about how TPM has cracked and developed important news that the so-called mainstream media couldn't be bothered with?

Posted by: sembtex | September 22, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I recently sent an email to Mr. Alexander, reminding him about printed canons of journalistic integrity and how editors selectively ignore them because they can.
He never really answered me.

There is no supervising authority overseeing mainstream media. Unlike any other profession whose canons of ethics are mandatory, the violation of which gets you kicked out and or losing your license, journalistic canons of ethics are all voluntary. Editors routinely flout them with impunity.

Posted by: southernwriter57 | September 22, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

You're equating "Acorn" reporting with what your newspaper did for the past 8 years ... WMD ... lies about Iraq ... no real reporting on how 9/11 came to be (duh! remember? Bin Laden to Strike USA!) .

It all comes down to ACORN?? you dropped the ball on ACORN? And that's liberal bias?

Ok, then tell us this: Whose interest were you serving when you dropped the ball on reporting the whole Bush admin?

Posted by: freddiano | September 22, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Please resign now, Mr. Alexander.

You've disgraced yourself, the paper, and journalism enough already.

Posted by: DougJ3 | September 22, 2009 11:57 PM | Report abuse

While it may be true that "Surveys of newspaper newsrooms consistently have shown that they are more liberal than the population and that more reporters and editors identify themselves as liberal than conservative," E.J. Dionne recently reminded us of "the old line about the liberal who is so open-minded he can't even take his own side in an argument."

It is the wont of liberals, reporters included, to bend over backward to prove they are not. Hence, what you have is more reporting that is biased in favor of conservatives just to prove they are not liberal.

Posted by: bob16 | September 23, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

I realize that I am late in responding and it, as such is irrelevant. But I think that a simple review of the opinion writers identified on the Post website pretty much speaks for itself in which way the Post leans. Of course, we continue to get the never-ending Bush bashing that is the easy way out for so many. "Prosecute the Bush Administration, etc. etc." It is old and non-productive. It merely serves as a red-herring for those who who have nothing more to do than pile on and avoid dealing with the present. But I have diverted from my primary premise. The following are the Opinion writers for the Post. Please convince me that the vast majority are not liberal-leaning, if not outright liberal apologists. I think that this list speaks for itself.

Joel Achenbach
Anne Applebaum
David Broder
Jonathan Capehart
Richard Cohen
Petula Dvorak
Jackson Diehl
E.J. Dionne
Michael Gerson
Fred Hiatt
Jim Hoagland
David Ignatius
Robert Kagan
Al Kamen
Colbert King
Michael Kinsley
Ezra Klein
Charles Krauthammer
William Kristol
Ruth Marcus
Robert McCartney
Harold Meyerson
Dana Milbank
Courtland Milloy
Kathleen Parker
Steven Pearlstein
Eugene Robinson
Robert Samuelson
George Will
Jonathan Yardley
Fareed Zakaria

Well, by my generous count, nearly 70% represent liberal thoughts. And you resent the fact that the right asserts a liberal bias? What planet are you really on, or is this really the fault of Dick Cheney and the Bush administration? Enough with the partisan rhetoric.

Posted by: MiddleOfTheRoad4 | September 25, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

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