In this presidential campaign season, the issue of bias in journalism has stimulated much debate. Conservative commentators accuse the "establishment" newspapers - chiefly, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times - of being biased toward left-liberal politics. Liberal media charge Fox News, which promotes itself as fair and balanced, with serious conservative bias. The star reporters of the New York Times claim Fox News' news is simply "propaganda." Conservative pundits easily reveal the liberal bias at CNN and CBS. There is hardly a news organization that is not accused of political bias of some kind. The entire debate is roiled by the rise of Internet blogging, which contributes instant documentary journalism, as of the Iraq war, as well as instant opinion journalism.
The problem with this debate is how it is set up. The debate makes two key assumptions. First, it is assumed that objective news journalism is, in principle, possible (paradigm instances purportedly exist, the New York Times most often being cited). Second, it is assumed that a clear distinction can be made between objective news journalism and opinion journalism (that is, editorial journalism). Good reasons exist to deny both assumptions.
News journalism is based professionally on two methods: personal observation by the journalist and interviews of witnesses by the journalist. The former method - personal observation by the journalist - collapses into the latter method - interview of witnesses. When reporting their own observations, journalists interview themselves. They engage in a single-person dialog, sometimes voicing the questions they ask of themselves live to an audience (in the case of live television journalism). The basic method of journalism is therefore simply the interview of the witness.
How does the journalist receive information from the witness? First notice that the journalist is not in the position of being a scientist. The journalist will not use scientific controls, statistical sampling, or experiment to establish the factual truth of testimony. Further, the journalist will not test the testimony with the null hypothesis. Journalism as a profession by definition does not use scientific procedures to determine fact. (Science investigates states of affairs; journalism does not.) As a result, the journalist receives eye-witness accounts as the opinion of the witness. In other words, there is no distinction between objective news journalism and opinion journalism - all news journalism is opinion journalism. There is no such thing as objective news journalism, the New York Times notwithstanding.
In view of our conclusion, what should we say about the debate over bias? The debate is misplaced. We should be debating a different issue - the method (methodology) of news journalism. Are there any procedures that could be used by news journalists to discover (and report) fact?