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Monday, 01 December 2008 20:00

A Michigan journalist with whom I correspond emailed yesterday that she tries "to avoid opinion on subjects I'm covering" -- a reference to my undisguised bias in the state's wrangle over retail wine delivery.

Sorry, but that's a load of malarky. Not to mention self-delusion.

The notion of "objective" journalism got a lot of play during the election, usually in reference to how reporters should handle wildly inaccurate attack ads. The argument frequently went this way: Candidate A says the sky is blue; Candidate B says it's green. Does a responsible journalist need to quote both candidates equally and root around for an opinion from an "independent expert" to contradict Candidate B, or can she simply stick a head out the window and report that Candidate B is making a false claim?

Since I cut my journalistic teeth during the highly-politicized Vietnam / Watergate years, arguments from both camps resurface pretty easily. Traditional journalists claim to strive for "objectivity" -- or at least to constantly monitor and attempt to mask any personal opinions or observations that might influence their writing.

Critics of traditional journalism -- and I'm one -- maintain that's an impossible task, because every element of the journalistic process contributes inherent bias to the finished product, even if the writer is unaware it's happening. So the best course is not to go to pains to mask a point of view, but to put it out there for the intelligent reader to draw her own conclusions. Just don't try to claim it's "fair and balanced".

Let's say you write about wine for a mainstream publication. Your employer likely determines the types of things you write about. A business publication will cover wine business issues, a lifestyle publication the winestyles of the rich and famous. Inherent but unstated in each: What We Cover is Important and Worthwhile. The inevitable result: a pro-business gloss over the former, and a pro-glitzy-consumption bias in the latter.

But that's just the start. Editors assign articles to reporters, while columnists and bloggers pick their own topics. They may call it "news judgment," but it's a major source of bias, reflecting how one person interprets what's important. If a columnist decides to cover a winery's expansion plans instead of its vineyard workers' living conditions, that reflects an opinion, even when masked by words like "newsworthy". Worse still: if the columnist isn't even aware what she excludes every time she selects a topic, because her mindset doesn't cause her to consider "worker living conditions" as a potentially legitimate column topic.

Then there's content bias. Stories -- especially columns and feature articles -- seldom "write themselves". Journalists make judgments at every step, and they're rarely objective. Should an article about banning retail wine delivery focus on the LCC claims about controlling out-of-state shippers, or the small Michigan-based Winebuys.com that would be put out of business by a delivery ban? Do you base this decision on what's most important to understand the controversy, or what makes the best "read" for your audience? What happens to the balance of a piece when an important player doesn't return your phone call, or says, "No Comment."

Journalists make decisions every day based on such real-world situations. Some turn out lots better than others. But let's not pretend that any of us can "avoid opinions" that -- consciously or unconsciously -- end up shaping our journalistic product.

Michigan's battle over retail wine delivery draws pretty clear pro-consumer and anti-consumer lines. Maybe it's unobjective and opinionated, but I'm willing to stick my head out the window to say which is which.

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Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.