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Avoiding Media Bias When Covering Political News Stories

By

A politician being interviewed by a news reporter during a campaign rally

Prepare to defend your reporting when a politician accuses you of media bias.

Photo © Digital Vision / Getty Images
Politicians and their staff members are usually experts at manipulating media coverage in order to advance their careers and their campaigns. That includes accusing reporters of media bias when unfavorable stories are published in print, on the air or online. Make sure your stories measure up to ethical standards so you can defend yourself against these claims.

1. Expect to Be Accused of Media Bias

Any reporting on a political campaign will include good and bad news. If you are assigned to cover a candidate, there will be a day she stumbles -- making a verbal gaffe, misstating a fact or sometimes literally stumbling as she trips over a broken sidewalk. Reporting facts doesn't equal media bias, though overly-aggressive campaign workers might try to con voters into thinking that.

A Pew Reseach study on the 2008 presidential election shows a wide spectrum of coverage on the Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin tickets. The study shows in some cases, reports were favorable then turned unfavorable, or the other way around. If there were truly widespread media bias, all the stories would've been either favorable or unfavorable. What the study shows is that the normal ups and downs of the campaign were reported.

2. Check Your Stories for Accuracy

Some reporters who don't have media bias are guilty of lazy reporting, which can appear to be the result of political leanings. Make sure all political stories are accurate, because campaign workers will be happy to rip your reports to shreds if it benefits their candidate.

Any reporter knows whether his story will please or perturb a campaign. If you suspect that there will be fallout to a story that's about to be published, comb over the facts for accuracy to protect yourself and your media company.

Decide if you are completely confident in the information you are presenting. If your source is a news release from an opponent's campaign, verify the facts independently or at least make it clear that it's the opponent who is making an accusation, not you.

Sloppy attribution can get you into trouble. Even in the casual world of the Internet, your online attribution must be clear, and that includes posts to Twitter or Facebook.

3. Determine Whether Your Story is Fair to All Candidates

A political story can be completely accurate, yet not be totally fair to the candidates. That's another easy way for charges of media bias to be made against you.

If you report that one wealthy candidate paid very little income taxes thanks to the creative use of loopholes, you owe it to your audience to investigate the other candidates' tax returns. If that information isn't being made available to you, you should report that.

Fairness involves more than thorough fact-finding, it also includes careful attention to the wording of your stories. Creative writing techniques that work in other forms of reporting are dangerous in political stories.

Using the income tax example, saying the candidate paid a "paltry" or "tiny" amount in taxes is letting your personal judgment affect your writing. If a tax expert says the candidate should have paid ten times the amount in taxes, say that and attribute it to the expert. Boasting that you "uncovered" this tax information implies that the candidate was trying to hide it. If all you did was read her news release, you didn't uncover anything.

4. Defend Yourself Against Claims of Media Bias

A good way to prepare to defend yourself against claims of media bias is to practice making those charges yourself. Learn how to scour stories to pick up on terms and ideas that could indicate a point of view.

If a campaign manager complains about how a story that's unfavorable to the campaign is an example of media bias, point out the more positive stories you have produced. You don't owe him an apology, just a reminder that your reporting is balanced. Never promise you'll give him a glowing story tomorrow.

Voters, who are accustomed to claims of media bias, are often harder to convince if they worship the candidate they believe you unfairly slaughtered. Ask them why they believe the story is unfair and gently defend yourself. There's no benefit to getting into an argument that you can't win.

Political campaigns are a roller-coaster ride. When a campaign is down, fingers often point at news coverage. By asking your own tough questions of your reporting skills, you will protect your reputation against unfounded charges of media bias.

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