Reflection: Elijah Lovejoy and hiding bias

By Cameron Coyle/F-G Scholar

The majority of journalism students in America are taught to keep their political beliefs to themselves, but this seems to contrast the fundamental beliefs of Elijah Lovejoy, the man John Quincy Adams called “the first American martyr to the freedom of the press and the freedom of the slave” after his murder in 1837 (“The Story of Elijah Parish Lovejoy”).

If Lovejoy was the first journalist to die for the freedom of the press and is still honored to this day, why was his ideology on journalism abandoned for a more discreet and even-keeled practice? His form of journalism almost looks like activism upon reflection of his almost 35-year-long life. He was a simultaneously a preacher and a journalist, never attempting to mask his true feelings on a subject, whether it was about slavery or another religion. The decision for most journalist to withhold their beliefs is most likely be because readers do not want to feel like they are being persuaded or preached at, but instead just simply informed.

Newspapers and other media outlets are aware of the public’s distaste for reporting that appears to favor one side over another. In 2008, the editor of The New York Times’ opinion section, Clark Hoyt, wrote an op-ed regarding media bias following criticism from their audience after an article read that vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave electrifying speeches in which Hoyt wrote, “We tend to pick apart each article, word by word, failing to remember that it is part of a river of information from which facts can be plucked to support many points of view. Perversely, we magnify what displeases us and minimize what we like,” (Hoyt). Hoyt later in the article admits the Times falls short of hiding their bias, but he ultimately maintains that their main goal is to inform and that writers suppressing their personal beliefs is the most effective style of reporting. If what Hoyt says about the Times’ audience picking apart so many details is true, then this must mean their readers—from both political parties—are almost always upset, especially considering their enormous circulation. It almost seems the masses cannot ever be pleased, and they will always cry foul regarding favoritism, be it loaded language or our hand-picked quotes.

It must also be considered the positive impacts that come from including biases in reporting. The American Press Institute published a piece titled “Understanding bias” which reads, “One can even argue that draining a story of all bias can drain it of its humanity, its lifeblood. In the biases of the community one can also find conflicting passions that bring stories to life” (“Understanding bias”). Understanding biases and considering the circumstances people must endure can give a journalist inspiration and even shed light on certain stories.
Lovejoy’s journalism was not all criticism either, as he used his position to expose certain facts and make citizens more aware of events, but he dealt with the upmost extreme version of the problems Hoyt faced.

Lovejoy wrote in detail about the lynching of a free African-American man in 1836 and received multiple threats after (“Elijah Parish Lovejoy”). He used facts, but still dealt with hateful people who found problems with the truth. Using his platform to share what should be public knowledge is the embodiment of freedom of the press, and his bias brought humanity and passion to the story.

In a way, this is similar to the reporting Mexican journalist Marcela Turati does about the war on drugs and the violence it causes. She is familiar with the communities she covers and shows bias toward children in horrible situations, but is their a way to effectively write about this subject without taking this approach? While frivolous political matters should most likely be covered with a lack of bias, Lovejoy and Turati show the most important topics blur the line between bias and conviction.

Works Cited

Hoyt, Clark. “Keeping Their Opinions to Themselves.” The New York Times, 18 Oct. 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/19/opinion/19pubed.html. Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

“Elijah Parish Lovejoy.” Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/social-reformers/elijah-parish-lovejoy. Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

“The Story of Elijah Parish Lovejoy: America’s First Martyr to Freedom of the Press.” Colby, http://www.colby.edu/lovejoyaward/the-story-of-elijah-parish-lovejoy/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

“Understanding bias.” American Press Institute, https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/bias-objectivity/understanding-bias/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

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