What’s your bias?
- Published: 10 July 2010
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The new media landscape will demand new ethics around objectivity, transparency and advocacy, writes Katrina Fox.
Put the words ‘media’ and ‘bias’ together in a sentence and many journalists will bristle, claiming impartiality and insisting they write fair and balanced news reports and features that allow the reader to make up their own mind about a subject.
Objectivity and neutrality have long been the classic tenets of journalism, but there is a growing realisation – among media pundits and consumers alike – that all media organisations are inherently biased in terms of what stories they cover, how they are framed and who gets a voice, and that the concept of objective reporting is a fallacy.
The What Drives Media Slant? study by University of Chicago professors Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, for example, identifies the political bias of particular newspapers based on the frequency with which certain phrases occur.
And British investigative journalist Nick Davies exposed numerous examples of falsehood, distortion and bias in the global media in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. When asked about the idea of objectivity/neutrality in reporting, he says it is “nonsense”.
“There never has been nor will be nor could be an objective news report. This is not because all reporters are subjective and trapped in their prejudices. It is because all reporters necessarily and always are selective. They have to select a tiny collection of subjects to cover, rejecting the vast mass of reality.
“Within each chosen subject, they have to select one angle, rejecting the countless other possible angles. And then they have to select the language they use, the prominence they give the story, the length at which they write it, the material which they choose for the intro and the headline etc. It’s all selective.
“The idea of neutrality is similarly nonsense,” Davies continues. “What would be the neutral way of making all these selective judgements? I would be very, very wary of any reporter who claims to be being neutral.
“That would signal, a) that the reporter hasn't understood the process of reporting, and b) that they are probably recycling a conservative, consensus account of the world and imagining that there is something desirable about that, even though the consensus account of the world so often includes stories which are false and/or trivial.
“All reporting requires selective judgements. In most newsrooms those are made with commercial criteria – they select stories, angles and so on that are cheap and safe and likely to sell papers. In healthier newsrooms they are made with moral criteria – they select stories, angles and so on because they make a moral judgement about what needs to be uncovered and reported.”
Journalists such as Davies, who report the facts but take a particular stance on a topic – whether it be climate change or high levels of poverty among Indigenous populations – have traditionally been labelled ‘advocate’ journalists.
Advocacy journalism is practised by mainstream media, alternative media, and special interest publications, such as a gay and lesbian or Jewish newspaper. In mainstream media, the opinion pages were traditionally considered the sole domain of advocacy journalism, but nowadays there’s an increasing number of journalists and journalism academics who recognise that bias and advocacy exist even in news stories and features – and that it’s time to own up to this.
The public aren’t exactly clueless either. In the US the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2004 State of the News Media report found that while journalists believe they are working in the public interest and trying to be fair and independent in that cause, the majority of Americans think these journalists are deluded and lying to themselves. They believe journalists to be “less moral ... more biased ... and generally more harmful to democracy than they were in the 1980s”.
Why has this happened?
Advertiser influence and PR spin
US national media watchdog organisation Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) believes it’s down to advertiser influence.
“Most of the income of for-profit media outlets comes not from their audiences, but from commercial advertisers who are interested in selling products to that audience,” its website states.
“Although people sometimes defend commercial media by arguing that the market gives people what they want, the fact is that the most important transaction in the media marketplace – the only transaction, in the case of broadcast television and radio – does not involve media companies selling content to audiences, but rather media companies selling audiences to sponsors.
“This gives corporate sponsors a disproportionate influence over what people get to see or read. Most obviously, they don't want to support media that regularly criticises their products or discusses corporate wrongdoing.
“More generally, they would rather support media that puts audiences in a passive, non-critical state of mind – making them easier to sell things to. Advertisers typically find affluent audiences more attractive than poorer ones, and pay a premium for young, white, male consumers – factors that end up skewing the range of content offered to the public.”
Ask a corporate-employed journalist in the western world if they consider themselves to be an advocate and the majority will likely answer a resounding ‘no’ and proudly declare that their job requires they don’t ‘take sides’.
But, according to American journalist and media critic Norman Solomon, this passive acceptance of the status quo is a form of advocacy in itself.
Writing on the FAIR website in 2006, he argues: “No greater contrast exists than the gap between human hunger and military spending. While international relief agencies slash already-meagre food budgets because of funding shortfalls, the largesse for weaponry and war continues to be grotesquely generous. The globe’s biggest offender is the United States government.
“We’re encouraged to see high-quality journalism as dispassionate, so that professionals do their jobs without advocating. But passive acceptance of murderous priorities in our midst is a form of de facto advocacy. It’s advocacy of the most convincing sort – by example.”
It’s also worth noting the influence of public relations in generating stories.
Earlier this year, independent Australian online media outlet Crikey, in conjunction with the University of Technology (UTS), released the findings of their six-month investigation into the role PR plays in creating news stories.
Spinning the Media involved more than 40 students under the guidance of UTS’s Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) head Wendy Bacon (an award-winning investigative journalist) analysing a five-day working week in the media, across 10 print papers.
ACIJ and Crikey found that nearly 55% of stories analysed were driven by some form of PR. According to Bacon and UTS student Sasha Pavey: “ Our investigation strongly confirms that journalism in Australia today is heavily influenced by commercial interests selling a product, and constrained and blocked by politicians, police and others who control the media message.”
Transparency rather than objectivity
Rather than trying to hold on to outmoded notions of objectivity and neutrality, journalists should instead declare their biases and allegiances in order to win back the trust of readers, according to Australian freelance journalist, author and blogger Antony Loewenstein.
“Journalists should say who they vote for,” he asserts. “This is very clearly important to know for corporate journalists who write for mainstream organisations. Transparency is important. Journalists fundamentally resent being challenged on their allegiances and agendas but they should be challenged.
“The whole concept of the objective, balanced journalist on the hill pronouncing what is news and the world listens and responds – that’s dying. And it should be dying. There’s a good reason the community has cynicism for journalism.”
Loewenstein argues that the majority of journalists have agendas, although they may not want to acknowledge them.
“There is a lot of discomfort in the mainstream press that journalists have opinions and those opinions are throughout these articles that they are writing in the news section,” he says.
“I think the separation between news and opinion is if it ever existed it doesn’t exist at all. I’m not suggesting that in news section of The Sydney Morning Herald you have journalists saying ‘I think this’ of course, but there is the sense that so-called neutrality – which is never neutral anyway – is balanced. In most of the corporate press the side of powerful business interests in government are what are given the greatest space than anything else.”
And with some stories, taking a particular position is a necessity, according to Loewenstein, who writes extensively on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“I’m Jewish ... but to me the situation is a clear example of discrimination against Arabs simply because they are Arabs by the Jewish Zionist majority. And writing that doesn’t require two equal sides.
“If you are writing about occupation, of course you need to write about the occupier and occupied but one is being occupied and the one is not, and clearly the occupier has somewhat more to answer for than the occupied. That doesn’t mean the occupied doesn’t have to abide by certain rules and regulations but they are different.
“Frankly, you can’t be objective if you’re going to write about a situation in Palestine or Iraq or even Indigenous Australia.”
Loewenstein has no qualms about being an advocate/activist and a journalist, even though it may cost him work.
“I think you can be both. I have no issues saying it whatsoever. Many so-called advocate journalists are petrified of saying so in case editors put them in the too difficult basket and not publish them, and I have no doubt that still happens to me too.
“I have an agenda. Well, I’ll live with that. I’d rather have an agenda and stand for something than come across as someone who believes in something but doesn’t actually put their byline to it – and that’s sadly how many journalists are.”
Marcus O’Donnell, lecturer and program co-ordinator, School of Journalism and Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong in Australia, is also a proponent of advocacy journalism.
“Journalism’s job is to advocate on behalf of the people,” he says. “The idea of objectivity is a late commercial add-on when journalists and news organisations started to lay down rules to protect themselves and make themselves appear more professional.
“Objectivity in journalism is a furphy. A sociologist called Gaye Tuchman did a study of newsroom practices back in the early ’70s and she said that objectivity was a journalist’s ‘strategic ritual’. What she meant by this was that it is a game we play to keep ourselves out of trouble. We play the balanced quotes game. We play ‘I won’t say it but I’ll get a source to say it’ game or the ‘This is opinion and this is news’ game.
“But the new media environment means that we can give up on these games,” O’Donnell continues. “David Weinberger from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society has famously said that ‘transparency is the new objectivity’.
"He says that objectivity was a trust mechanism we relied on in media that didn’t do links. But now we can make it perfectly clear where we are coming from, what our sources are and what our values are, and it is this transparency that is the new trust mechanism that both readers and writers have to rely on.”
Editing for readership’s prejudices and preconceptions
So will this transparency and acknowledgment of bias mean we’ll see editors increasingly editing for their readership’s prejudices and preconceptions rather than trying to be papers of record?
And if so, is this a virtue or a vice in a landscape where anyone wanting to sell their news might need to give it something more attractive to readers than mere facts alone?
For David Penberthy, editor of News Limited’s Australian online opinion website The Punch and former editor of The Daily Telegraph, popular newspapers have two roles: one is to record facts and the other is to go into bat for its readers.
“There are some stories, particularly stories of government failure ... where there’s an expectation from your readers that you will put a massive amount of pressure on the government on behalf of readers to try to force the government to lift its game,” he says. “This is an advocacy role that newspapers rightly play to give readers a voice.”
Penberthy believes that while “pure objectivity” is “technically unachievable” and that a journalist’s vested interests in an issue should be disclosed – for example if they are aligned with a political or activist organisation – the profession is best served by writers who can keep an open mind.
“I hope that journalism by its nature shouldn’t attract ideologues,” he says. “It should attract dilettantes and cynics who can look at people across the political spectrum and judge whether they are doing a good job or not, on a case-by-case basis as they affect the readership, because you are there for the readership, not yourself.”
O’Donnell believes newspapers, magazines and broadcasters have always been conscious of their audiences and the roles that the publication or media outlet plays in their lives, but that the new media environment offers journalists the opportunity to make important stories interesting ones.
“I think there are problems with click-through driven news cultures, which mean that news websites are going to get better stats by putting up a gallery of celebrity photographs than they are with a detailed analysis of the government's insulation program,” he says.
“But I don't think this new ecology can absolve us from constantly trying to make important stories also interesting stories. We do this by using our standard journalistic techniques, such as making a complex abstract story personal and real with anecdotes and personal stories. The new media environment means we can do this in fantastic new ways, with video with interactives, with links. We have more at our disposal to do better.”
Editing or writing for your readership’s prejudices or preconceptions can be a vice or a virtue, depending on how you go about it. While not giving equal time to those voicing opinions opposite to the ones you choose to advocate may be an acceptable tactic, suppressing key facts or falsifying information is not.
As Davies puts it: “If advocacy journalism disintegrates into the journalist fabricating or distorting facts, or celebrating his or her own opinion in print, then that would be lousy journalism.”
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger and a freelance advocate/activist journalist writing in the areas of sex, gender and sexuality diversity and animal rights. An edited version of this article appeared in The Walkley magazine.