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Avoiding Bias

other topics under JUDGMENT: Be Enterprising, Dealing with Profanities, Polls, Surveys & Studies, Public Meetings

As politics has become more polarized and the radio audience more fragmented, listeners are now quite sensitive to perceived biases in broadcast journalism. Radio talk-show hosts are frequently highly partisan in their comments on current events, and program directors may choose to promote controversial talkers in order to attract a particular demographic for a particular station. With media consolidation, many markets are now dominated by a single ownership group, which programs deliberately distinct formats and political viewpoints on the different frequencies in that market under the groupís management.

Reporters must take particular care to ensure that their stories are free from bias. Of course, journalists are expected to discover the truth about events in their communities and report that information to their audience. Journalists are not supposed to be politicians or entertainers. Under the rules of classical rhetoric, the three tasks of the public speaker are to inform, to entertain and to persuade. Let your talk-show host concentrate on the final two tasks. You are responsible for the first task: to inform. This is especially true if your reports are used on multiple stations with different formats and demographics.

How significant is the story?

Story selection is one area where listeners are quick to perceive bias. From my own experience, I remember criticisms I received from listeners upset at the attempts by a mayor to fire the city's police chief. Supporters of the police chief complained that the media highlighted negative news about the police department but gave little attention when the police successfully solved cases. One example brought up by these supporters was the greater prominence given to the story that a city police officer had been expelled from a statewide drug-enforcement task force because of drunken behavior at an out-of-state convention, than what was given to the capture of a local burglary ring and the recovery of many of the items stolen from several homes.

Listeners argued that the burglary ring affected far more members of the community than did the out-of-town antics of a single police officer who was not acting under the police chief's direct supervision. Although the disgraced officerís story had merit as news and did reveal aspects of the management of the police department -- a central issue in the mayor's desire to replace the chief -- these listeners were correct in the underlying rationale that should always govern the choice and placement of news stories: the greater the impact on your listeners, the more significant coverage of the event should be. Bias is often perceived when listeners believe that significant stories are given diminished coverage in favor of sensational, salacious and scandalous news that has little real impact on their daily lives.

Play it straight

The popularity of sarcastic political talkers has infected some reporters who perhaps aspire to talk-show careers. I recently heard a story on a station in a midsized market about a downtown antidrug rally involving elementary-school students. The reporter affected a sarcastic tone in his voicer, which began

Aside from being an ineffective lead that fails to provide listeners with basic information about the rally, this script seems merely a lame attempt by a smarmy reporter to make himself appear clever. It demeans the children who participated in the rally. Furthermore, the sarcasm implies that the rally was a waste of time. The reporter should not have been making social commentary on how children are being raised and on the efficacy of antidrug rallies. Listeners easily could have perceived bias on the part of the reporter, harming the credibility of station's news department as an accurate source of information.

Keep the tone of scripts informational, without partisanship or sarcasm. And give stories the proper amount of coverage, neither too little nor too much. These steps will help ensure that you become a trusted source of information in your community, and that your listeners will not ignore, or worse, turn off the radio during your newscasts.

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