Kara Miller, an instructor on media issues at Babson College in Massachusetts, writes in her Culture Club blog at Boston.com about conflicts of interest in the media. Her focus is on the intersection between media coverage and sponsorship of media outlets.
Commercials, certainly, are not new to news shows. But there is something vaguely disturbing about integrating corporate logos into newscasts in 2010. What if Rachel Maddow wanted to report on Cisco? Or CNBC detected corruption within the ranks of Charles Schwab? Would they hesitate to expose those who make their shows possible?
With apologies to Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas: bias, for lack of a better word, is good.
In fact, all media is biased already. We all bring our own personal conflicts — people, products, and points of view which we like or dislike. Virtually all media outlets accept advertising or sponsorship to some degree, and that creates a conflict. Publishers, general managers, and others who control hiring bring on board people with whom they can work well.
These are all conflicts and they no doubt influence the news. These conflicts, however, are not new. Indeed, overt sponsorship of television programming is hardly new — it used to be common for TV shows to include sponsorship announcements as part of their broadcast.
Disclosure of Bias and Conflict
In the examples Miller mentions, it is hardly a secret that those companies sponsor portions of the newscast. Will it cause them to shy away from negative coverage? Perhaps. But it also makes it more likely that competitors will exploit that to their own advantage and drive negative coverage if it exists.
Where these conflicts become problematic is when a news outlet pretends to be impartial. That’s simply not possible. We all have biases and conflicts that we cannot truly bury. Yes, we can — and should — compensate for them where possible.
But ultimately we are only as good at it as the disclosures we make. If a network newscaster came out and admitted to being left of center, it would surprise nobody. If some of the Fox anchors announced they were conservatives, there would be no shock.
What Context Tells Us
These admissions would help. Imagine if the web sites of the various news organizations included information about the biases and conflicts of their reporters, producers, and on-air talent. Start with political bias, but let’s add in other relevant information. Where does a spouse work? Or children if they’re old enough to be employed. What about other experiences that have left an indelible mark?
Some conflicts or bias may only need to be disclosed in narrow circumstances, and that’s fine, too. I’m not looking for the media to turn their lives into a completely open book, but rather to share information that a reader, viewer, or listener would find helpful in establishing context.