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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Upfront: Bias and trust

Well, our magazine made it through another month without The Brass paying any critics $787 million. Let’s count that as a success.

Seriously, the settlement of a much-publicized defamation lawsuit in mid-April raised important issues on how the media operates in 2023.  My sense is that most readers don’t care about the inner workings of the news business. But hang with me to consider a few key issues. We know having readers’ trust is important.

Credibility based on a pursuit of accuracy is the most important concern, of course. If the sky is Carolina Blue, but we report that it is Wolfpack Red to curry favor with the N.C. State University crowd, it’s a problem. Especially if someone finds an email saying I’m fibbing to get tight with the Raleigh crowd.

Breathe easy, this magazine has never intentionally lied about Red versus Blue, or anything else, based on pure bias. Seems like a low bar, but it’s a different age. Everyone has biases because of their life experience. But our predecessors made an effort to tell the story straight, despite outside pressure. We try to continue that tradition.

 It can get cloudy because of economics, however. In the 1980s journalism world, dominant media companies were among the most lucrative businesses in their communities. It wasn’t cigarettes or soft drinks, but a monopoly local newspaper or TV station was golden. Today, most for-profit media groups operate on much thinner margins, while many news groups operate with subsidies from foundations, advocacy groups, wealthy individuals or government entities. They understandably have biases.  (Business North Carolina’s owner is a closely held, for-profit business.)

Given the economic pressures, it’s impressive to see news organizations produce well-reported stories that challenge powerful institutions, whether one agrees with the coverage or not. Recent examples include private-equity-owned McClatchy’s series of stories criticizing North Carolina’s giant poultry industry for placing too much production near low-income rural residents; or the nonprofit Asheville Watchdog’s reports on how HCA Healthcare’s ownership of Mission Health has affected health care in western North Carolina.

One can find cracks in both cases. The McClatchy stories, which target readers in vibrant Raleigh and Charlotte, understate the poultry industry’s economic value in struggling regions. HCA backers contend the negativity stems from biased nursing-union organizers and does not acknowledge the tough decisions about staffing levels across the industry because of labor shortages and margin pressures.  

Fortunately, reporters still ask challenging questions of influential enterprises and individuals. The key is for fair-minded people to eventually agree on the underlying facts and then figure out solutions. Sure, that’s utopian. But on too many civic issues, the media allows extremists to gain control of the debate. In the defamation case cited above, that seemed intentional, which led to a
$787 million payout.

Let’s hope the big check leads to a wiser, fairer journalism environment.

•••••••••

Correcting the world’s wrongs is noble. We take our shots periodically, but our magazine’s mission is concentrated on sharing stories of interesting North Carolina people and enterprises. This month features an entrepreneurial couple in Goldsboro; a legendary Chapel Hill wedding band; a powerful Greensboro lawyer who influences key development and transportation projects; and a star Charlotte tech company seeking a new growth strategy.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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