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Bias in journalism?

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It is every journalist’s duty to provide the facts as they are, but does bias still manage to exist in journalism? This was the question posed by Clare Noonan, editor of 11 East Bay Patch.com sites and speaker at Tuesday’s workshop at The Sacramento Press.

While both Noonan and almost all 14 participants answered yes, Noonan said there were ways to pinpoint personal opinion as a reader and avoid it as a writer.

In order to provide objectivity, Noonan said that writers should make sure that facts are accurate and that the reporting is fair.

Referencing a University of Michigan website, Noonan listed five areas where bias can occur: word choice, omissions, limiting debate, story framing and sources.

Taking a closer look at each of these areas can help a writer to maintain the integrity of an article and a reader to recognize the presence of opinion in what he or she is reading, Noonan said.

The group included a variety of writers, community activists and the general public. Most, if not all, vocally expressed how extremely difficult, if not impossible, it is to find neutral reporting.

Finding unbiased sources is important, said Linda Maher, mother and regional sales director for Extended Day Hotels. She said she is worried about how her children will often take information at face value without considering the background.

“I’m not a writer, but I was just personally interested in the subject matter,” Maher said. “I’m hoping the workshop will teach me how to be an even more cautious reader by showing me how to recognize bias in writing.”

Noonan began the evening by defining bias as prejudice for or against someone or something.

Though characterization or stereotyping were noted as prevalent forms of bias, such as issues of gender, race, religion and country of origin, Noonan said these were very obvious means of bias.

“These are the type of subjects that often tick people off the most when they suspect a bias or prejudice,” Noonan said, “but there are many other ways to influence an article with bias without necessarily addressing any of those issues.”

Structured as an open forum, Noonan created and facilitated discussion around these topics and other areas where bias could be present, including but not limited to frequency of coverage, story layout and advertising. She also provided examples and excerpts from various pieces of writing.

Omissions and sources were community activist Darlene Anderson’s biggest concerns.

“I came to the workshop because I feel that journalism today is very biased and always trying to persuade the reader,” Anderson said. “For example, when it comes to public policy, the stories of the policy makers are provided, but not that of who the policies affect and how that process (is omitted). When forming an opinion, it’s important to hear all the perspectives of a situation.”

By the workshop’s end, it was the group consensus that bias exists and is unavoidable. Noonan pointed out the group’s jaded attitude and in hopes of lightening that, insisted that unbiased journalism and journalists do, in fact, exist. Quoting a co-worker, Noonan said with a laugh, “A journalist without bias is one whom both sides hate equally.”

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