Bias is Unavoidable

Overnight, AppleInsider posted Daniel Eran Dilger editorial “After Apple Inc. dodged the iPhone 6 Plus BendGate bullet, detractors wounded by ricochet“. As is typical of his stories, the tone is conspiratorial and heavily biased in Apple’s favor. That’s okay. He practices what I explained in February is “advocacy journalism“.

In my book, Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, I identify five types of journalism relevant today, and each gets a whole section: advocacy, conversational, contextual, mob, and process. Two other journalisms—data and immersive—receive cursory treatment but will be expanded whenever I next update the book. Where I deviate from traditional views about news reporting—what’s taught in J schools—is my glowing endorsement for these different reporting practices, with advocacy journalism being perhaps most controversial. 

Let’s Be Honest
As I explain in the book:

Objectivity in journalism is a myth. It’s a fiction, a grand illusion, like the Wizard of Oz. But behind the curtain, obscured by smoke and lights, there is nothing but a little man with an agenda.

Bias is unavoidable. It’s everywhere, and every journalist seeking balance when writing stories fools himself or herself when denying this. There’s no such thing as objective reporting. Bias is built into the fabric of culture. Your vantage point, whether visual, cultural, biological, logistical, or whatever other “ical” applied, shapes how and what you write about.

Matt Taibbi takes stronger position:

All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view…to pretend there’s such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly; nobody in this business really takes that concept seriously. ‘Objectivity’ is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public, sort of like the Santa Claus myth. Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving.

I was crushed when he left Rolling Stone. Matt now works for First Look Media, where he is launching a new digital magazine.

The point: Bias is inevitable. Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of People Operations, gives several brilliant examples this week. Among them:

When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.

This is just one example of how unconscious biases influence our actions every day, even when—by definition—we don’t notice them. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts…Combatting our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right.

No writer is objective. He or she can strive for objectivity, by presenting news from various perspectives, but bias will always creep in. As I explained in February: “The true advocates don’t pretend otherwise. Knowing what they are and their agenda helps readers filter out bias. By contrast, hidden bias is the most destructive, and there is way too much of it, like inside The Echo Chamber”—which reverberates when there is a media frenzy around one topic, like this week with iPhone 6 BendGate. If you missed it, and I hope you did, the Internet flooded with reports that the Apple handsets bend in pants pockets.

There is No Conspiracy
Advocacy journalists, like Daniel Eran, whom I will refer to as D.E., whether or not they would agree, visibly display their biases. Some readers will see, many others will not. The latter group is the real audience—people who share similar beliefs and seek their reinforcement. I absolutely see a valid role for this kind of news reporting on the Internet, particularly when the writer does due diligence, and Daniel Eran Dilger does. I may not agree with all the conclusions, but his stories are long, present an argument, and support it with data and thoughtful analysis.

D.E. and I have never spoken, and he sometimes writes long diatribes attacking my reporting, presumably (based on content) because he sees me as part of the anti-Apple media conspiracy. In the story posted overnight, he writes about the BendGate controversy:

We are now at the eighth annual launch of a new iPhone. Each one has been targeted by a similar campaign of fear mongering launched by Apple critics, promoted by competitors and advanced by a media publicists working to create unfavorable buzz.

This conspiratorial tone isn’t new for D.E., and there we disagree—not on outcome but cause. Unquestionably, the news media piled up on Apple this week, as I explained yesterday. Where D.E. sees conspirators, I see opportunists. Apple is pageview driver for anyone living off the Google free economy’s dribble. Before Apple unveiled iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, rumors  rolled across the InterWebs—the majority with no credible sourcing. The natural news and reviews cycle followed before BendGate exploded like a nuclear bomb. The misreporting pileup is the news equivalent of Godzilla—unnatural beast formed from radioactive fallout.

There is no anti-Apple conspiracy but a wave of opportunists looking to pageview profit from BendGate. For the most part, the news reporting was terrible; there D.E. and I agree. For the record, I wrote two stories for BetaNews. The first, “If iPhone 6 or 6 Plus bends, it’s YOUR fault“, rebutted a colleague’s story blaming Apple. The second, “8 reasons why Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus ‘bendgate’ is a good thing“, made fun of the whole, stupid affair. I’m guilty of mocking tweets, too, like this one: “I think Apple’s strategy for resolving iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus supply shortages is quite clever. #bentgate #bendgate”.

There is No Excuse
As The Echo Chamber reverberated, bad reporting got even worse. For example, in her news story explaining that Apple would replace some iPhone 6 Plus models, Charlie Osborne writes: “While the standard iPhone 6 does not appear to have this design flaw, the iPhone 6 Plus’ large size and 5.5-inch screen, combined with a thin aluminium frame, may be the problem”.

“Design flaw” is inappropriate, without some authoritative source saying so—like an industrial engineer specializing in metals. Writing for Gizmodo, Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan takes different tact in story “One Clever Explanation of Why the iPhone 6 Plus Might Bend“: Quoting as authority an anonymous Imgur user. Seriously? No wonder Daniel Eran Dilger sees a great anti-Apple media conspiracy.

Given the number of blustery posts about bendable iPhone 6 Plus, the likelihood of frivolous lawsuits, and the potential brand damage to Apple, journalists need to report better about this thing—or any other. In other words, don’t be lazy. Call the experts. But for pageview-obsessed blogs, speed and number of posts often matter more than accuracy.

By the way, Washington Post did contact experts and Consumer Reports, which is regard as an authority, conducted tests. Both refute crazy claims iPhone 6 Plus easily bends in the pockets.

D.E. is probably correct that in the end, the negative press eventually works to Apple’s advantage in part for the tour given journalists of the iPhone testing facility. Regardless, as authoritative tests emerge, bendy iPhone reports look increasing spurious and stupid—not that most anyone cares. The blogs and news sites got their pageviews. for which they laid responsible reporting on the altar where they make sacrifices to the great Google god.

News reports that advocate misinformation, based on shoddy reporting, are a plague. Advocacy journalism, like Daniel Eran Dilger’s story, helps correct the public record.

Photo Credit: Franco Folini