Unless everyone accuses you of bias, you’re doing it wrong

Enda gives Obama a rhetorical lesson- or is it the other way round?

“The only way you’ll ever know an article on the Middle East is correct is if everyone on all sides hates it”.

So spoke a journalism professor to a seminar I attended on bias in news reporting. It’s a great process of elimination – if everyone hates it equally, then you’ve remained impartial.

There are those who argue that it is one of the functions of the media to be biased, to provide comment which balances the output of corporations and government, and in many cases that’s true.

This blog, for instance, gives me an outlet for my own opinions which, due to the nature of my work, have no place in straightforward reporting of news, politics or sport. The comment and op-ed pages in our newspapers are valuable vehicles for debate and ideas.

The problem arises when comment starts to masquerade as news.

Take Enda and the “plagiarised” lines from Obama at College Green this week, about which Colin Murphy provides an excellent explanation over at politico.ie.

I’m usually the first to give Enda a good kicking in these pages, but not this time.

This time, he didn’t “plagiarise” anything – he engaged in a simple, respectful and powerful rhetorical device, and to interpret it otherwise is disingenuous.

But of course, in Irish media it was reported as “plagiarism”, instead of the skilful piece of  political theatre performed before a master of the art that it actually was.

As most people are aware, plagiarism is a terrible crime in both journalism and academia, and those accusing Enda Kenny of it knew exactly what they were doing, regardless of their political colours.

Whether they are disappointed with him for dragging his feet over how to make the poor poorer, or cut thousands of jobs from the civil service, essentially they wished to paint the Taoiseach as a fraud and a gombeen.

They wanted to give the impression of a man stupid enough to steal the words of the American President and then repeat them in front of him.

I disagree with some of Colm’s conclusions, in that I don’t think speed or social media has anything major to do with such distortions. For me it’s more a simple lack of humility and respect on the part of those reporting the events.

Just as economists have become our newest celebrities, it is far too easy these days for the reporter to become the story.

We all know who Charlie Bird and Anne Doyle and Ingrid Miley and Kay Burley are, but that is something that doesn’t matter – what matters is what they are reporting and how.

Because most of us want to make up our own minds, what we want is news based on facts, not hearsay or opinion from someone with no respect for or knowledge of the subjects with which they are dealing.

With the possible exception of the staggeringly ill-informed Burley, there are far worse culprits out there than those named above.

The reason I always wanted to work for the Reuters news agency was because of the principles and strict guidelines that cover how we report- these apply to every journalist, including freelancers like me. It’s not just that they make it easier for us to be unbiased in our reporting – they demand it.

Some might find it difficult to work under such circumstances, but I feel the opposite – it moves journalism out of the shadows, liberating its practitioners to do their best work. It also reminds us that it is what we are reporting – and not we who report it – that is important.

Which is why I’m looking forward to next week. Despite the fact that I find most of the professional athletes I meet boorish and unapproachable, I’ll write another article about Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Swedish national team, and then sit back and wait for the mails to come in.

And as soon as I’ve had complaints from the fans of Malmö, Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Sweden, the former Yugoslavia and anywhere else you care to mention, I’ll know I’ve gotten it just right.

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