Why CommonSpace should embrace and define its bias - New editor Ben Wray introduces his approach

Ben Wray has been appointed as new editor of CommonSpace. In this introductory article, he introduces his approach to news.

HI, I’m Ben Wray the new editor of CommonSpace. I wanted to introduce myself by saying a bit about my approach to news and to CommonSpace in particular.

CommonSpace is biased. We shouldn’t just be willing to admit this, we should embrace it and define it.

Walter Dean, training director at the Center for Collaborative Journalism, writes:  “Journalists…often feel compelled to try to prove that they are ‘unbiased’.

“But what if they took a different approach? What if journalists acknowledged that bias does exist, that it is built into the choices they make when deciding what to leave in and what to leave out? That bias is embedded in the culture and language of the society on which the journalist reports? And that ‘news judgment’ does reflect the journalist’s background as well as the news organisation’s mission and business model?”

This is the approach CommonSpace should take, and it’s consistent with what we know about the science of how the brain works. We are intrinsically biased, regardless of our personality traits, education level or politics (or if we are a journalist). ‘Cognitive biases’ relate to the most fundamental aspects of our reality, including what we think is true and false. Cognitive bias and institutional bias are of course different, but closely related.

That does not mean we should not seek to manage our biases, but it becomes more not less difficult to do that if we are seeking to disguise them under a cloak of complete impartiality.

That does not mean we should not seek to manage our biases when they come into conflict with fundamental journalistic principles (such as honesty), but it becomes more, not less, difficult to do that if we are seeking to disguise them under a cloak of complete impartiality (as the BBC editorial guidelines seek to do).

So in aid of transparency about our biases, we want to be clear about CommonSpace’s mission and business model.

Our mission is very simple: To be a high quality news and analysis outlet with Common Weal’s values and ethos at its heart.

What do we mean by ‘Common Weal’s values and ethos at its heart’?

  • An approach to politics which goes beyond complaining, to ask how we fix it - the ‘what is to be done?’ question.
  • Support for Scottish independence, and therefore a keen and deliberate interest in the politics of the independence movement.
  • A basic philosophical notion that a more even distribution of wealth and power creates better social outcomes.

CommonSpace news coverage will be infused with the spirit of these three biases – what we priortise, the sources we go to, the angle we take, and so forth.

This does not mean we will be a promotion site for our patron, the Common Weal think-tank – CommonSpace will remain scrupulously editorially independent. Neither does it mean we will be melding together news with opinion – we will manage our biases, humble enough to know that our individual opinion on Russia or Clara Ponsati is not nearly as interesting to our readers as the view of individuals and organisations representing something much bigger.

Our business model is perhaps even simpler, and between fake news and the corporate media, we think we have a right to be proud of it.

But it does mean we will be producing news from a perspective and news with a purpose in mind - we have a clear mission and are happy to be held to account on that basis.

Our business model is perhaps even simpler, and between fake news and the corporate media, we think we have a right to be proud of it. A news outlet funded by a not-for-profit think-tank which is in turn funded by thousands of £5 and £10 donations from people who believe in a more equal society is something to celebrate.

Founding editor Angela Haggerty has taken the site from its launch in January 2015 to 7.9m page views in 2017, up from 5.6m in 2016 and 3.5m in its first year. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to build upon that growth, knowing that I am editing a site which has the great fortune of not having to chase page hits to get advertising money in to be financially sustainable (increasingly the go-to business model in the industry as paper sales continue to decline).

For CommonSpace to be sustainable we simply need to deliver news coverage that engages our grassroots funding base through invigorating and challenging them. That is a bias I am perfectly happy to embrace.

Over the coming weeks and months we will be revealing some changes to the site and its content. As a new editor I know I have much to learn and my door will always be open: if you have views or ideas about CommonSpace, get in touch.

Ben can be contacted at ben@common.scot.

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