Some journalists are expected to have a point of view. Political columnists comment on public policies, and critics are, well, critical when evaluating a performance. In both cases, the writers have opinions and should feel free to express them.
There is also a tradition of provocative thinking in columns and critical writing that is important to free speech. The views expressed often spark a wider debate on the letters page and social media as well as around the dinner table.
As part of that debate, I sometimes hear from readers who believe that, as well as opinion, they have detected bias.
The issue is straightforward for news reporters, who may have personal views, but should do all they can to keep them out of their coverage.
But it can be more murky for columnists and critics, and raises such questions as: What is bias and how much of its perception is in the eye of the beholder?
I had a complaint this week from a reader involved in the Toronto theatre scene who was unhappy with The Globe and Mail's review of a recent performance by a touring Israeli dance troupe. He considers the review politically biased, complained that the reviewer, a freelance writer, had made anti-Israeli comments on Twitter and asked if someone so disposed should have been given the assignment in the first place.
I looked at the critic's Twitter feed and saw that there have been a few comments: She links to an opinion piece in an Israeli newspaper about a debate on "Israeli war crimes."
She also offers a list "of protests for Palestine happening in the world," and takes issue with the Israel-based SodaStream company, "whose factories are built on illegal West Bank settlements."
The last two tweets were made before the writer, a noted author, became a Globe and Mail critic, while the first one was earlier this month.
In her review, she describes the dance production as a "political play" that features "Jewish performers running around in a circle and calling out platitudes about their respective struggles. I might be tempted to complain [that the play] offers an egregiously one-sided view of Israel's wounds."
Arts editor Jared Bland says the writer "was clear with me in discussing her political beliefs before reviewing this production," adding that he "shared her piece with another editor here at The Globe who is especially knowledgeable about Middle East politics.
"He had several good queries on her review, and I put them to her. Through the editorial process, we refined her points and she provided excellent documentation on a few aspects of her argument that we had factual questions about."
Mr. Bland also says he thinks "it's extremely important here to remember the distinction between reporters and critics. All good art is political. All good critics can and must engage with that art politically. When the politics being explored are as controversial as those surrounding Israel and Palestine, any politically engaged critic will have a point of view. None of them is invalid; art is made for no one political position.
"Additionally, bias implies non-disclosure. I'm of the belief that (her) arguments in the review make very clear her political position – she discloses through the act of criticism."
So, was the review truly biased? Three things must be taken into consideration, the first being the idea that critics criticize – which is fair game.
The second is transparency and, unlike Mr. Bland, I don't think you could describe most dance productions as political.
So, when a critic evaluating a political piece of art has previously stated views on the subject, those views should be apparent to the reader.
In the normal course of events, that would include an italicized reference to previous work or associations. In this case, there are no formal associations to disclose, and the writer's point of view is clear in reading the review.
Could someone else have covered this production?
In general, it is better to avoid a potential conflict, but as a dance critic, she was best equipped for the task. Also, she informed the editors of her views, so it was up to them to decide whether to assign someone else. Once that decision was made, transparency about her views was even more important.
The third barometer is The Globe's code of conduct, which says that, whether staff or freelance, "reporters and columnists who write or may be called upon to write on political issues must avoid being identified in their private lives with any party or political tendency."
The language is intended for standard political coverage, but I think it also suggests a principle for other political activity.
In this case, I believe the writer should temper her comments now that she works for The Globe, and she and her editors should be aware of potential conflicts down the road.