Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Have Bias, Will Write

By Scott Warner
Scott Warner

Bias has become a four-letter word. CNN and the New York Times are biased; so are Fox News and National Review. Are they inaccurate? Bias means slanted, one-sided, prejudiced, predisposed, and bigoted. It reeks of deliberate ignorance. And it divides the nation. So I hear.

Bias is intellectual pornography. It has no legal definition, but we all know it when we see it. We don't want to pay for it with tax dollars, and our children must be protected from it. It turns people into drooling degenerates, presenting viewpoints that elect Presidents, kill the innocent, and drown the poor. Obviously it must be stamped out.

However, bias is inevitable if you want your writing to be interesting.

Should a writer be objective and present all points of view? Tom Sawyer would have been very different had it been equally sympathetic to Injun Joe. After all, he was likely a disadvantaged, alcoholic, and uneducated man beaten down by authority, a true victim of social circumstances and therefore not entirely responsible. These days, a villain like Injun Joe would be politically incorrect. Indeed, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has been removed from school libraries with regularity for being everything from racist to Communist. (Doesn't that just make you want to read it?) It's number 84 on the American Library Association's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 list. Bias of one kind or another is not only alive and well but kicking.

Yet Tom Sawyer is a classic. Mark Twain has a point of view that is presented honestly. The story is one example of bias. It isn't meant to be objective and wouldn't be nearly as great if it was. Reaction to it is another example.

But, you say, Tom Sawyer is fiction. The news is what matters, where any perceived bias damages a journalist's credibility. Isn't the real danger when a story's bias ignores an obvious truth?

That sounds reasonable if you agree with the journalist. The fact is, news consumers aren't objective people. They have families, jobs, and debt. They are from all walks. And a journalist's views align with those of the news organization, or all reporting would be the same. What matters is, is the story interesting?

Ask yourself if reporting after and about the events of 9/11 was unbiased, for example. Should a news story have viewed the event as an unprovoked attack, the fault of a government who didn't respond strongly enough to previous attacks, a global issue, or some combination of these? American media seemed to largely ignore the political milieu that gave rise to terrorism, and educated Middle Eastern people must have seen American coverage as hopelessly biased. The fact that strong emotions ran through the coverage indicates implicit preferences.

Bias is apparent when you disagree with a viewpoint. And if only one side is understood by the audience, there is no bias other than in an Orwellian sense. Rather than be seen as a divergence of view, bias is seen as a deviation from an absolute truth in which a writer isn't influenced by personal opinion. But is that a writer's job?

No. It isn't necessary to portray ontological truth. Writing needs to be interesting. A writer should present a version of the truth. Presenting all viewpoints equally is the literary equivalent of an eye exam. Commit to a viewpoint, and you'll be interesting. Does your writing pass the bias test?

                    Does it present a side as preferable?

                    Does it present a moral viewpoint?

                    Does it attempt to persuade?

                    Does it value a people, place, or tradition?

(Disagreeing with this and insisting that your own writing is objective is, by the way, a blind spot. Someone is bound to disagree with you.)

Biases come from values, which, by definition, are positions one cares about. These may include hard work, honesty, putting family above all else, or making money. A piece of writing includes the writer's values as he or she settles on an issue. In doing so, the writer is interesting not only to those who agree but to those who disagree. One need only look at Tom Sawyer and other novels (The Catcher in the Rye, for instance) to know that a writer's enemies keep him as well-read as his friends.

But one needn't be extreme to be interesting. As often as bias divides, it can enlighten. In fact, there's a good chance that readers with divergent views will be interested if you're interesting regardless and even because of your bias. Like everything in life, it's all in how you look at it.