What does ‘unbiased’ really mean?


What does it mean to be impartial? Unbiased? Credible?
Is a juror unable to be impartial if they have family or personal experience with police brutality?
Or, does having experience with something give them an edge up because they have inside knowledge that others don’t? Do they know not only how it should be but how it actually is?
Is a police officer or neighborhood association worker or city employee compromised in their ability to make decisions for the good of all if they live where they work? Are they more prone to bribery or favors? Are they held to a higher standard because their kids go to school with the people they’re serving?
These are questions our community is wrestling with.
They are questions I ask myself every day as a community journalist.
What does ‘unbiased’ really mean?
I was trained that the highest standard a journalist could hold themselves to was reporting the facts without bias. It begs the question: what does ‘bias’ really mean? And also, is that what our highest standard should be?
We all know that our own thoughts and ideas influence our word choices. It plays into who we opt to talk to for articles and what part of the conversation we choose to include.
We’ve tried to get past that by saying there are two sides to every story, and so we need to make sure both sides make it into an article. But aren’t there actually more than two sides? We do a disservice to ourselves and others by pretending there is merely a pro side and a con side. If we dig in, we actually learn that those in “favor” of a project often share concerns with the “anti” side. And vice versa. It is rare to find whole groups of people that are so much the same that all their reasons are exactly the same. If that happens, we can likely point to a propaganda campaign or a totalitarian government.
These were things we were already thinking about. And then Donald Trump happened. When one source is telling lies, should those mistruths and half truths be part of a news article? Should they be given equal weight? Or is the reporter then perpetuating fake news items?
When one side is backed by power and authority, when they pay lobbyists and staff whole departments of communication staff and information officers, should we give them the same weight as a community member working to get their voice heard?
I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time, and I’ve landed on the side of amplifying community members.
I appreciate questions that come to my in-box asking why we’ve made an editorial decision. Why did we run a story featuring public comments about reopening George Floyd Square to traffic without getting a comment from the mayor’s office?
For one, it is pretty easy for them to ignore a small neighborhood operation like us, and to not get back to us when we reach out to them. (Note: this wasn't the case with the public comment article.) We’re working on pointing that out in articles so that you know we tried, and they didn’t reciprocate.
Many times (as was the case with the public comment article), you’ve heard what they have to say because they hold press conferences and have a big pulpit to speak from. This isn’t something we all have access to. The folks who live around George Floyd Square don’t have their own television stations or the ability to call a press conference that is attended by every media organization in the Twin Cities. But they did send in comments on a comment card to their city with the belief that they would be read and paid attention to.
We believe that those voices are valuable and important, and we’re working to amplify them in our pages. We believe in grassroots efforts, and consider them foundational to our democracy. We ignore them at our own peril.
I don’t think that makes the story biased or impartial. And it doesn’t mean the reporter or the newspaper itself is biased either. We’re not stating in the article what our opinion is about the issue. It’s not a blog or a commentary (like this piece is). What we are doing is getting the word out there about something we know most people haven’t heard about. We are stepping outside the echo chamber to bring you specific local coverage.
We live and work here. We talk to other people who live and work here.
Those are the folks you’ll see in our news articles and feature stories, and they are the people writing columns. You can check the bylines because we are transparent.
Recently, the city insisted that to access funding, Nokomis East Neighborhood Association had to agree that they won’t hire a person who lives in the neighborhood as their executive director. Becky Timm is leaving, and NENA is looking for a replacement this spring. If there is a high-quality candidate who lives in Nokomis East, they won’t be able to apply for the job.
When I talked to all the new executive directors coming into our neighborhood organizations and asked if they lived here, the answer was becoming a common “no.” It was something I had been wondering about as it seemed a little strange to me. At the same time that we’re having a larger community conversation about whether police might operate in a more ethical manner if they lived and worked in their own communities, our community leaders were increasingly coming from outside the neighborhoods they were managing. Now, I know why. It’s a city directive tied to whether they get funding.
But it’s not one I agree with.
I believe that the threads that bind us to each other make us stronger. They help us make decisions that build community. I’m going to write respectfully about the people I run into at the grocery store. We ask people to use their names on letters they submit and comments they leave on our social media channels. We seek to point out problems and talk about possible solutions.
And it’s all because we strive to be considered credible by the people we live near and work with and care about.
We’re part of this community.
Have an opinion about this? I’d love to hear it.

Tesha M. Christensen lives in south Minneapolis and owns the Southwest Connector, as well as the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger and Midway Como Frogtown Monitor. Drop her a line at


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