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Journalists draw ire by being too balanced on government shutdown coverage

In a catch-22, the media industry, which has long been accused of being biased, is now getting slammed for being too unbiased when it comes to coverage of the government shutdown. Words like “gridlock” and “standoff” have dominated headlines related to the shutdown and have drawn the ire of fellow media analysts and the general public following the story closely.

Before the government even closed its door last week, critics were calling out journalists for not properly laying the blame at the GOP’s feet. According to Talking Points Memo, only yesterday, storied journalist Carl Bernstein called for the media to end “false equivalence” in its coverage. pointed the finger at specific news organizations for printing stories on the government shutdown that placed blame on both parties. This includes Bill O’Reilly, who reportedly said on “Fox and Friends” that “they’re [Congress] all playing a big political game rather than looking out for the country.”

Meanwhile, MediaMatters reported that the Wall Street Journal claimed, “Both parties are responsible for getting to this point.”

In a commentary, the Huffington Post’s Kathy Gill noted that media coverage was missing the point. “For example, it’s unlikely that media headlines would clue you that the current impasse isn’t really about the budget. It’s not even about government shutdowns,” she wrote.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the Press Think blog, examined this notion of “false equivalence” last week and quoted himself from a previous post discussing the same theme. “The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things!” he wrote.

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, has noted in the past that he feels journalists try to be overly objective to the detriment of accuracy. The same holds true for government shutdown coverage. “The first code of SPJ ethics is to seek truth and report it,” he said. This doesn’t mean he/she said reports, he added. This means showing the public which one is right, or if they’re both wrong, what the truth is. “Any reporting that looks at it as just a breakdown between the parties is not accurate reporting,” he said about shutdown coverage. While there’s plenty of commentary that accurately portrays what’s going on in Washington, D.C., Buttry noted that the majority of mainstream reporting has been “he said/she said” reporting.

Although objectivity has long been a principle of balanced journalism, the industry has slowly begun to move away from this. Rosen noted that it’s a “dwindling class” of journalists that feel the need to be opinion free. Social media has helped drag opinions from journalists, while, like Buttry, a faction believe that if reporters were more transparent about who they are and what they believe, the public would trust the news more. “Certainly, in my 42 years in journalism it’s never been perfect; it’s not going to get perfect,” Buttry said.


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