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What the public doesn’t know (but should) about the journalists who report on us

Chris Roush is the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar at UNC.

The individual biases and personal life experiences that influence most journalists remain a public secret.

What you won’t find in an influential journalist’s official bio is often more significant – when it comes to how she or he will “filter” the facts of a story – than the typical LinkedIn-style recital of name, rank, education, and awards.

That is the premise of my new column appearing every Wednesday at Talking Biz 2, a recently launched business journalism website hosted by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Like its namesake, Talking Biz, “2” is the brainchild of Chris Roush, a veteran business journalist and author who is currently Senior Associate Dean and the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar at UNC. Roush is also the founding director of the Carolina Business News Initiative.

While the original Talking Biz site has drawn tens of thousands of visitors a month with its steady diet of news about business journalists and financial news outlets, “2” features analysis, opinion, and observation. Both “1” and “2” attract a loyal following of journalists, communications executives, educators and journalism students.

“Readers and contributors will engage in enlightened and informed debate to delve into the coverage of the complex business journalism issues of our times,” promised Roush last month in his introduction to the new “2.” He listed three goals for the rookie:

  1. Generate robust online conversations among business leaders, reporters, public relations professionals, business journalism students and citizens.
  2. Increase understanding of business journalism issues by providing a platform for a broad range of voices to be heard.
  3. Promote accountability and accuracy in the coverage of major business issues.

Initially, Roush has recruited five outside contributors for “2” and he, himself, also posts articles to the new website.

The lead writer is Liz Hester, a former Bloomberg News finance team reporter who went on to serve as vice president of internal communications at JP Morgan Chase. Another Bloomberg News alumnus and Talking Biz 2 contributor is Adam Levy, now a principal with 30 Point Strategies, a communications agency operating from Atlanta and Washington D.C.

Two UNC students, Kelly Blessing and Marshele Waddell, fill out the formal contributors lineup. Blessing is a senior who interned this past summer in New York for Bloomberg News; Waddell is a master’s student.

My column, which lacks a formal title, might be called “Journalists Unplugged” or “Journalists Backstage” – because it aims to expose and examine the numerous unseen personal and professional self-interests that sway the way in which news is reported – but which seldom are discussed in the open, especially by the journalists themselves.

I’ve dubbed journalistic self-interest the “800-pound gorilla in the newsroom.” And whether reporters, editors, anchors and bloggers dance around it; close their eyes to it; try to tame it; or proudly showcase it; every journalist to some extent is influenced by the existence of his or her own selfish interests and biases.

Career ambition. Family life. Political affiliation. Economic class. Health concerns. These are just some of the background characteristics and self-interests that skew the prism through which journalists view the world at large and their story subjects in particular.

The facts remain the facts, but journalists have plenty of latitude to interpret those details, prioritize them, ignore them and spin them as their professional and personal tastes dictate.

Does it really matter? You bet!

At the most basic level, knowing more about the potential biases of a journalist will provide readers and viewers a clue as to how close to the ideal of “objective” journalism each individual reporter, writer and correspondent comes.

When public relations experts and the senior-level executives they advise can uncover hidden insights into the thinking and approach of journalists in advance, they can better anticipate what questions the journalists might pose and how their stories will lean.

As I wrote for my debut column on Talking Biz 2, “what’s in a journalist’s official bio or LinkedIn profile counts. But not nearly as much as what you won’t find in there.”

Read my latest column: Did You Hear the One About the Environmental Wackos? One of the nation's most influential business news editors, Bloomberg News's Laurie Hays, is married to Fen Montaigne, an environmental journalist who embraces the concerns of those who believe in man-caused global warming. Do Bloomberg News subscribers and story subjects have a right (or need) to know about this power couple?

Follow my daily updates on Twitter: @NewsBios


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