Monday, May 24, 2004

Questioning the Question: My colleagues at work have forwarded to me a warning from a blogger who plans to comb through ProfNet looking for journalistic bias.

For those who don't know, ProfNet is an ingenious (and, at times, lifesaving) Internet service that allows reporters to send out mass queries looking for professors or college administrators to quote for an article. You can use it to find a professor with specific expertise, such as an expert on Persian studies for an article about Iran. Or, if you cover higher education, you can find people who fit certain criteria, like professors who are using blogs in a classroom.

The PR flaks at our esteemed institutions of higher education subscribe to ProfNet and scour through the requests to find ways to get their colleges' names in the paper. The journalist finds a good source, and the institution gets some publicity. Everybody wins.

But Dave Copeland believes ProfNet requests can reveal a journalist's bias going into a story, as if the reporter has reached a conclusion, then conducts the research with the sole purpose of proving a claim. Mr. Copeland offers this example from Fox News:

TODAY/EDUCATION: LIBERAL BIAS AT COLLEGES - FOX NEWS CHANNEL (US) I'm looking for academic "experts" who can speak about the "liberal bias" at college campuses and/or the dominance of liberal professors at colleges. I prefer someone who has written a book about this topic. No phone calls, please.
Need leads by 03:00 PM US/Eastern MAY 20
Monitored by eWatch
Elisa Cho
His argument is that Ms. Cho has already made up her mind about the "liberal bias" at college campuses, and she's looking for someone to speak her mind about that. I say let's wait and see what Ms. Cho produces before we jump to any conclusion.

When reporters are covering a controversial issue, they do their damnedest to make sure both sides are represented. But sometimes it's hard to find a source who is available and can represent a certain point of view that surely exists. I may be doing a story about views on abortion on college campuses, and I've interviewed a bunch of pro-choicers. If I can't find a pro-lifer on a college campus in a pinch, I may put out a ProfNet request looking for one. That doesn't mean I'm trying to push a certain point of view. It just means my deadline is quickly approaching.

Nevertheless, it looks like my colleagues and I are going to have to make sure that even our ProfNet requests appear fair and balanced.


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