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Leadership Rowan explores media bias at panel discussion with local journalists

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Leadership Rowan students spent the better part of an hour Thursday morning picking the brains of local journalists about objectivity in news reporting.

The panel discussion featured J. Michael Bitzer, Catawba College political science professor and provost; WBTV reporter David Whisenant; WSAT radio host Buddy Poole; and Salisbury Post Editor Elizabeth Cook. Students posed questions about the media’s role in Rowan County and the future of the news industry.

A series of questions led into a long discussion about negative news and unbiased reporting. One student asked how journalists prevent their own biases from seeping into their reporting.

Panel members said the answer is simple: stick to the facts.

“I’m not trying to report my opinion,” Whisenant said. “I’m trying to report what happened.”

Whisenant said he looks over his stories after he writes them to be sure that his opinions have not tainted the article.

Cook and Whisenant said that another practice media outlets use to ensure balanced reporting is to find and interview people who stand on different sides of an issue.

Bitzer said that, in his experience, journalists who contact him are “looking for balance.” They often want to present the facts in context — historically and politically — so that people can look at the story and take away what they will.

“Help me understand this. What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?” they ask him.

While local media outlets are not able to hold larger, national news organizations accountable for bias — especially in an age when “the whole concept of truth is in flux,” Cook said — they do work hard to ensure that their own bias cuts as close to the middle of the road as possible.

Whisenant, Cook and Bitzer agreed that reporters work hard to present the facts as objectively as possible — especially when it comes to news happening right here in Rowan County.

“Local news needs to be objective,” Whisenant said.

Leadership Rowan is a nine-month leadership training course offered by the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. The program helps participants get an in-depth view of community issues and develop skills necessary to assume leadership roles.

Other questions Thursday ranged from journalists’ favorite stories over the years to how media outlets hold each other accountable for unbiased reporting.

Bitzer is much sought after by reporters for his ability to summarize and put in context modern political battles. Bitzer said he looks at interacting with journalists as a chance to educate the media and the public.

“It’s an educational opportunity,” he said.

One student asked how local journalists work together across platforms. Poole said WSAT will often use stories that have appeared on WBTV or in the Post to spread information.

“We want to do what’s best for Salisbury and Rowan County,” Poole said. “We’re friends.”

Whisenant, a Rowan County native, said he doesn’t view news outlets such as the Post or WSAT as competition because each is a separate medium.

“I never have because it’s different,” he said.

“Nevertheless, we’re always trying to beat David,” Cook added jokingly.

Bitzer pointed out that candidate forums are possible because of collaboration among the Post, WSAT, Catawba College and the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.

“We see that as a public service,” he said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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