My Bias About Bias

I’m not sure I agree with Tim Layden’s remarks on the decline of objectivity yesterday. But I realize, different biases on my part play in.

I respect and appreciate Tim on a lot of levels, but I’m disagreeing with him here.

First, as I’ll confess and move on, his examples come from broadcasting, and I’ll admit that I don’t consider ESPN’s talking head folks to be journalists, regardless of their backgrounds.

In my typology, once Wilbon, Greenberg, or Stephen A cross that line, they become entertainers, co-opted by a media company in business with the sports organizations they discuss, and there to promote interest in broadcasts more than inform sports fans.

ESPN still employs plenty of journalists like Don Van Natta Jr. and Gene Wojciechowski, but they stay on the other side of that line the above three have crossed. Even Woj’s College GameDay work shares the same firm roots as his other work.

And I do not see the sports reporting profession moving in that direction. Yes, transgressions exist–and I have heard about but not personally observed partisan press boxes, particularly in CFB–but these are recognized as transgressions.

Plus, I discount the notion that sports journalists are 100% objective, uncaring whether the teams they report on win or lose.

They are not cheerleaders, but I do acknowledge that the needle moves a little toward the home team, though it remains within a healthy, “objective-enough” range.

It all relates to the concept researchers refer to as “salience,” which within agenda setting measures the perceived importance of issues or subjects.

Applying this to sports journalism (at the risk of sounding like Professor Obvious), sports journalists can still be objective while also recognizing home team salience to their audience.

Yes, audience members are happier and more positive when the home team does well, and sports journalists report with that in mind. Audience members are unhappy and want their team to be better when they lose, and sports journalists also reflect that side of salience.

It’s not 100% objective. Sports journalists aren’t shaking their heads and sanctimoniously noting that the idea of sports is that someone’s gotta lose, so deal with it.

It’s also not biased, however, because the professional sports journalists still report courageously about deficiencies, instead of ignoring them in a flash of sunshine.

So if they realize that it’s better for their audience, and the community, for the home team to succeed, that is not bias. The audience can cheer, as long as the reporters themselves do not.

It’s the same as with umpires. By nature, umpires are lifelong baseball fans and had their favorite teams and heroes growing up. And they know the fans at the game have their favorite teams, and that’s what keeps the umps working.

Media outlets could drag disinterested outsiders to cover important games to get an objective view. But audiences are also looking for a level of engagement over articles with terms like “militaristic” and “bourgeoisie.”

They can get that, and a sufficient level of objectivity, from sports journalists today–at least from those who remain on the right side of the journalism/entertainment line.