- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

Hidden biases

Does this or any other newspaper that hopes to be taken seriously deliberately slant its news? Certainly not.

Do reporters and editors make dozens of small decisions every day that — consciously or subconsciously — reflect their personal biases? Of course they do.

I was forced to ponder the issue after making a presentation to more than 30 military officers from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia at the National Defense University on Friday. When I asked how many considered the elite American media — the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN — to be fair and reliable sources of news, only three raised their hands.

Every young reporter coming out of journalism school knows he or she is expected to strive for impartiality. And any decent editor, presented with an article that tells only one side of a story, will send the reporter back to get the other side.

But bias, while easy to spot in others, it is almost impossible to recognize in ourselves. Two persons with dramatically different opinions on a matter can each believe they are being impartial while the other is being biased.

No respectable news organization tolerates its reporters being deliberately untruthful; fabricating quotes or information in an article is grounds for immediate dismissal. Our credibility is the most precious resource we have, and we will do all we can to protect it.

But every story involves dozens of decisions about what should go in and what must be left out. Page designers decide which stories are important enough to appear at the top of each page. And senior editors decide which stories will go on the front page.

Those decisions — what we in the trade call news judgment — inevitably reflect our personal opinions about what we think our readers ought to know.

Deaths in Iraq

One such decision was forced on us Wednesday, on the day the Iraq Study Group finally issued its report recommending new policy directions for the war in Iraq.

The story was principally handled by our national desk since the panel had been commissioned by Congress and the report was initially delivered to President Bush. But later in the day, the wire agencies reported from Baghdad that 10 U.S. soldiers had been killed that same day in Iraq.

That’s a particularly bad day for U.S. forces in Iraq, and came toward the end of a week in which more than 30 soldiers had been killed. But some four years into the war, it was not so far out of the ordinary as to propel the story onto the front page.

On the other hand, it seemed significant that these soldiers had died on the same day that the Iraq Study Group report was released; at very least it seemed to dramatically illustrate one of the central conclusions of the panel — that the situation in Iraq was “grave and deteriorating.”

We discussed it on the Foreign Desk and we asked an editor on the National Desk to include a mention of the 10 dead American soldiers in the main story. Somehow it got lost in the shuffle.

The report on American casualties ran as the lead story on the World page but did not appear in the Page 1 story, nor was it included in an index of Iraq-related stories inside our paper that did appear on Page 1.

Would a news organization that has been less sympathetic to the Bush administration, or more critical of the war, have played it differently?

The British Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday night and National Public Radio on Thursday morning both made the military deaths a central part of their coverage of the Iraq Study Group report. Both outfits have been pretty tough on the war from the beginning, so that was no great surprise.

But neither the New York Times nor The Washington Post — which also have been quick to report setbacks in Iraq — had any mention of the deaths in their front-page coverage.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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