An Assessment of Bias and Objectivity in the News Media Essay

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1.0 Introduction

Bias and objectivity are frequently used as ideological standards to assess the news media. The media has a duty to provide the citizenry with impartial information on public events and they have a positive, and even democratising function in regard to public enlightenment. However, if they fail to factually mirror reality, they place a certain slant or bias on the news. The inordinate power and authority of the news media enables it to influence the views of the public. If the public are not aware of certain biases, they may accept journalistic opinion as reality. In a survey, 60 per cent of respondents found it difficult to distinguish between fact and opinion in a selection of news articles.1 This reveals that bias could easily sneak in to articles without public knowledge. If the media fail to adequately inform the citizenry, they are not only failing to fulfil their duty, but have the potential to thwart the democratic process.

Since bias and objectivity are frequently used as instruments to evaluate the performance of the media, this essay will first define these two terms. Secondly, we must question whether it is in fact possible for the news media to achieve objectivity and be genuinely unbiased. The answers to these questions will determine whether the standards of bias and objectivity are appropriate in evaluating the news media.

2.0 What is meant by bias?

Bias is favouring a certain interpretation or belief over others.2 To be bias, an individual or collective entity permits certain interests or causes to influence their views.3 Wissner-Gross emphasises the importance of an individuals environment and exposure to different milieus in shaping their biases, and claims that no individual can be completely free from bias.4 Bias, however can be acceptable in different circumstances. For example, in relations with friends and family, Street suggests that it is reasonably acceptable for an individual to be biased.5 However, it is not perceived as acceptable for the media to be bias by the public and politicians.6 This is because journalists present themselves as unbiased, and thus a journalist who communicates a prejudiced viewpoint, is generally considered to be neglecting his or her responsibility as a reporter.7

Numerous writers have defined the term bias, and have advocated various methods of dissecting such an abstruse term. McQuail provides a straightforward and clear approach to bias, through the identification of four types of bias.8 The first is partisan bias, which is explicit and deliberate. An example of partisan bias would be an editorial which clearly reveals the editors view. The second, propaganda bias, involves the intention of supporting a certain party or policy. Yet the reporter fails to explicitly state such an intention. The third is unwitting bias, which is not deliberate or conscious, and involves selecting which articles are to be included or excluded. While McQuails fourth type of bias, ideological bias, concerns the use of established norms.

Although McQuail provides a clear and simple approach to such an elusive term- these norms or standard models are grounded in ideologies and thus are inherently biased. When defining such types of bias, the predominant issue that arises is that definitions are prone to subjective notions. One individual may perceive propaganda bias to permeate one article, while another may observe the same article as unbiased and balanced. This is problematical, for how do we prove the existence of a particular type of bias within an article?9 An individuals own biases are prevalent even when detecting the biases of another and thus different people will use different methods to discover bias. The detection of bias is therefore prone to bias itself. This initiates the question of whether there is a simpler and clearer method of defining and hence detecting bias.

2.1 What is meant by Objectivity?

Doll and Bradley suggest that rather than defining bias, it is favourable to treat it negatively, as the absence of objectivity.10 So what does it mean to be objective? To be objective is to be uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.11 This principle contends that facts and personal values can and should be completely segregated.12 Academics such as Iyengar13 have endeavoured to define and dissect the elusiveness of objectivity. However Iyengars anatomisation of objectivity fails to provide an adequate explanation of what factors exist when an article is objective. In contrast, Entman clearly discusses the two principal requirements that exist when an article is objective.14 The first requisite is depersonalisation; this demands that articles are free from personal ideological or substantive evaluations. The second requirement is balance, which endeavours for neutrality in articles. The reporter is obligated to present the views of conflicting sides in a dispute, and is also required to provide both sides with roughly equivalent attention.15 Therefore, objectivity requires depersonalisation and balance in reporting.

Objectivity and its role within the media has been perceived differently by numerous writers. First, Schudson asserts that objectivity is not merely a claim about what kind of knowledge is reliable, but it is also a moral philosophy.16 This accentuates the moral and ethical decisions that are prevalent when constructing articles. Schudson takes this one step further, and maintains that objectivity is the ideal that actually legitimises the journalistic profession.17 Hence any news organisation that provides information on public affairs must be impartial when reporting otherwise it is probable that it would be perceived as a dereliction of their duty as a reporter.

Alternatively, objectivity can be perceived as professional rules and rituals utilised by reporters to process facts about social reality.18 This position illustrates how objectivity aims to protect the journalist from libel and widespread criticism, and therefore it is used defensively as a strategic ritual. This view is practical and rational, for objectivity is a set of rules which is not only used to legitimise the role of journalists, but also used to protect them from denigration and legal action. The assessment of objectivity in the media thus has the ability to either unmask the journalists and reveal their implicit prejudices, or glorify them for being impartial.19

The objective ideal is resonant within our culture, and is utilised as a method of evaluating the media. If journalists are considered objective and unbiased, then they are generally perceived as fulfilling their obligations of adequately informing the citizenry.20 However, two main issues arise in the discussion of objectivity. First, there is not only one method of evaluating objectivity. One individual may consider an article objective and free from bias, while another may regard it as prejudiced.

Second, terms that are vital to the existence of objectivity may actually demand contradictory practices.21 For example, Entman maintains that balance is a requirement of objectivity;22 yet Smetko states that balance and objectivity contradict one another.23 Such contradiction was evident in the 1987 British general election; there was considerable evidence of bias despite the fact that television allocated equal coverage to the main parties.24 Therefore, terms that are necessary to the existence of objectivity may actually be in opposition to one another, which causes us to question if there is one single definition of objectivity.

Rather than perpetually debating the definition of the elusive term; objectivity, Gordon et al proposes that in order to locate objectivity we should focus instead on other terms such as accuracy, reality, truth and fairness.25 However, a corresponding problem would

arise these terms would fail to improve our understanding of objectivity because they are just as elusive and abstruse.

News professionals rightfully insist that those who accuse them of bias must be able to define and locate objective truth in a definitive manner.26 I do not claim that ability. Rather, I present the boundaries in which one may locate bias and objectivity within an article. To provide one single universal definition and method for detecting bias and objectivity is near impossible.

This is because each definition and method will differ depending on the individual. One may perceive a certain article as bias, whilst another may view it as objective and impartial. Definitions of such elusive terms are thus subjective and its detection is prone to personal prejudices. In recognition of such difficulty, or even impossibility, the clearest and most unambiguous definition is McQuails four types of bias and Entmans requirements of depersonalisation and balance in the existence of objectivity. Despite their criticisms, they provide a clear and reasonable definition of the elusive terms; bias and objectivity.

3.0 Is it possible to unbiased or objective?

The particular biases embedded within an individual are dependent on their milieu and background.27 Every human being has a history, and has grown up with certain beliefs and values.28 They have certain views towards other races, sexes and ethnicities; and they have been educated according to what is right and wrong. Every person has varying biases and views towards particular political parties and policies, and there is not one individual who does not have an embedded value system. Despite this, journalists frequently insist they are objective.29 But, is it possible to completely discard your own personal values and beliefs in journalism and be completely objective?

The first criticism of existence of objectivity is the belief that a news story rests upon substantive political assumptions.30 These assumptions are entrenched within the journalist from their own upbringing and their validity is never questioned.31 Every human being shares these values and assumptions, and it is near impossible for an individual to ever completely be free from these mind-sets they have acquired over the years.

A second major reason why objectivity cannot exist is advanced by Sigelman. He argues that media bias is a consequence of a matrix of organisational processes.32 These processes commence when a journalist is recruited, and continue during his socialisation with

co-workers. Although the reporter is permitted a certain amount of autonomy concerning the content of their articles, the actions of subordinates are severely restricted.33 Reporters will often slant articles in order to avoid conflict with their superiors, and monetary and normative incentives can encourage journalists to be consistent with their views.34 Therefore, media bias is not only due to the individual prejudices of the writer. It can also emerge because organisational processes have the ability to create a certain slant in articles.

A further criticism of objectivity is presented by Entman. He maintains that the media cannot be completely objective because facts cannot speak for themselves. An editor or journalist must arrange the facts in a certain fashion, and select which facts should be emphasised. This inevitably affects what the audience perceives as reality.35 Furthermore, other factors such as economic interests and appealing to a certain audience can also have the ability to slant the news. This is because journalists may unconsciously attempt to appeal to a specific audience when constructing articles.36 Moreover, superiors will often place their economic interests above their responsibility to adequately inform the public, such as slanting a certain article to appear favourable to a major advertiser.37

There is a general consensus among the public and politicians that reporters are required to impartially inform the citizenry of public events. Thus, it would be considered a dereliction of their duty if journalists failed to be unbiased and objective.38 If journalists place a certain slant or bias on particular facts, the public may perceive it as the truth. Despite the criticisms that objectivity cannot exist, it is imperative for the news media to strive for this goal. If objectivity is the cornerstone of the professional ideology of journalism,39 it must be possible to be objective otherwise, why complain of bias unless a suitable alternative can be imagined?40

In the first question, the issue whether it is possible to define and locate objective truth in a definitive manner was discussed. It was concluded that it is near impossible to universally define such an elusive term because every individual will interpret it differently. Lichtenberg provides a solution to this quandary, asserting that belief in objectivity does not mean that there is one single determinate answer for every question.41 Rather, all questions have wrong answers, and only some have correct answers. This view recognises that all facts will be interpreted differently and thus can be attributed various meanings. However, although facts can be interpreted differently, our interpretations will always depend partly on the facts. Therefore, while there may be room for disagreement the interpretations that are based most thoroughly on the facts will be more objective and unbiased than those that are not.42

In addition, Lichtenberg accepts that the same facts and events may be of varying importance to different people from diverse backgrounds.43 An example of this is the diverse coverage of the Irish election in different countries.44 Although each country focused on different aspects of the election, they all referred to the same facts and each of the stories were still compatible with one another.45 Therefore, even though individuals may report and emphasise different facts of an event, if they are based on the truth they will be objective.

Furthermore, if news organisations seek to establish clear policies on the elimination of bias, it must be possible to be objective.46 Our views of other cultures are not hermetic- it is possible to recognise that we see things differently, and how we see things differently.47 The first step to the elimination of bias is thus to recognise and understand such biases.48 A journalist must acknowledge that they have personal biases, and that prejudice and subjectivity can easily sneak into articles in the form of racism, political bias and sexism. Journalists must be dedicated to examining current usage for all signs of manipulation and prejudice, and recognise how to detect biases within their own writing.49

The second step towards the elimination of bias is to ensure the diversity of staff.50 They must reflect the diversity of society in terms of varying ethnic groups, religions, races, classes and political views. This diversity is especially fundamental on the copy desk, because this improves the probability of the detection and elimination of bias.51 Therefore, in order for a news organisation to be objective, the staff must be diverse and journalists must recognise and eliminate their own biases in their writing.52

It is possible for a news organisation to be objective. Despite the fact that journalists may not be able to completely discard their value systems, precautions can be implemented to detect bias. Rather than perceiving objectivity as a single definition with one universal answer, we must broaden our scope. It is vital to acknowledge that for such an elusive term interpretations will always differ. Every journalist will emphasise different facts, yet this does not mean it is not objective. Provided the articles are based on truth, and precautions are taken to detect and eliminate bias, news organisations can be objective.

4.0 Conclusion

The opposing terms; bias and objectivity are utilised as ideological standards to evaluate news organisations. Despite the elusiveness of such terms, it is possible to define the terms bias and objectivity. Bias is favouring certain interpretations over others, while to be objective is to be uninfluenced by personal prejudices. However, it is imperative to recognise that every individual will vary in what they perceive as bias and objective. An individual may consider an article to be bias, while another may deem it objective.

Despite these varying interpretations, it is possible for the media to be unbiased and objective. The news media have a duty to impartially inform the public, and they need to do everything possible to ensure they fulfil this duty. In order for an individual journalist to eliminate bias from their writing, they must first recognise that have embedded prejudices. Similarly, the news organisation as a collective entity must also put in place effective precautions for detecting all types of bias. It is necessary to have a diverse copy desk that will detect even the most subtle biases. The staff should reflect the diversity of society, and comprise of varying ethnicities, religions and political views.

In order to disseminate information factually and impartially; journalists must clear their minds of social mores and try to perceive the situation as it exists. Truth needs to be the crux of any article. Provided journalists base their stories on the whole truth, and take precautions to eliminate bias -the news media can be completely unbiased and objective.

Bibliography

Allan, S. News and the Public Sphere: Towards a History of Objectivity and Impartiality, in Bromley, M. and OMalley, T. A Journalism Reader, London: Routledge, 1997.

Bugeja, M. Living Ethics: Developing Values in Mass Communication, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.

Coser, R. Insulation from Observability and Types of Social Conformity, American Sociological Review 26 (February), 28 39.

Dautrich, K. How the News Media Fail American Voters: Causes, Consequences, and Remedies, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Entman, R. Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Flint, D. The Bias of Australian Journalists, Quadrant, Sydney, 45 (9) September 2001, 24 30.

Gordon, A. Kittross, J. and Reuss, C. Controversies in Media Ethics, New York: Longman Publishers, 1996.

Hackett, R. Decline of a Paradigm? Bias and Objectivity in News Media Studies, Critical Studies in Mass Communications, 1 (3) 1984: 229-259, reprinted in Gurevitch etal., (eds) Mass Communications Year Book Vol. 5, 1985.

Iyengar, S. News that Matters: Television and American opinion, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lichtenberg, J. In Defence of Objectivity, in Curran, J and Gurevitch, M (eds), Mass Media and Society, London: Edward Arnold, 1991.

Schudson, M. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, in Tumber, H. News: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Schudson, M. Objectivity, News Management and the Critical Culture, in Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, New York: Basic Books, 1978 at 184.

Sigelman, L. Reporting the News: An Organisational Analysis, The American Journal of Sociology, 79 (1) 1973: 132 151.

Street, J. Political Bias, in Mass Media, Politics and Democracy, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.

Tuchman, G. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality, New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Tuchman, G. Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmens Notions of Objectivity, American Journal of Sociology,77 (4), 1972, 660-679.

Tumber, H. News: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wissner-Gross, E. Unbiased Editing in a Diverse Society, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1999.

1 Flint, D. The Bias of Australian Journalists, Quadrant, Sydney, 45 (9) September 2001, 24 30.

2 Dautrich, K. How the News Media Fail American Voters: Causes, Consequences, and Remedies, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

3 Dautrich, K. (n 2).

4 Wissner-Gross, E. Unbiased Editing in a Diverse Society, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1999 at xii.

5 Street, J. Political Bias, in Mass Media, Politics and Democracy, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001 at 17.

6 Street, J. (n 5) at 17.

7 Street, J. (n 5) at 17.

8 Street, J. (n 5) at 20.

9 Street, J. (n 5) at 22.

10 Hackett, R. Decline of a Paradigm? Bias and Objectivity in News Media Studies, Critical Studies in Mass Communications, 1 (3) 1984: 229-259, reprinted in Gurevitch etal., (eds) Mass Communications Year Book Vol. 5, 1985 at 254.

11 Bromley, M. and OMalley, T. A Journalism Reader, London ; New York : Routledge, 1997 at 112.

12 Tumber, H. News: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999 at 293.

13 Iyengar, S. News that Matters: Television and American opinion, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 at 131.

14 Entman, R. Entman, R. Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.at 30.

15 Entman, R. (n 14) at 30.

16 Schudson, M. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, in Tumber, H. News: A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999 at 294.

17 Schudson, M. (n 16) at 287.

18 Tuchman, G. Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmens Notions of Objectivity, American Journal of Sociology,77 (4), 1972, 660-679.

19 Schudson, M. (n 16) at 294.

20 Allan, S. News and the Public Sphere: Towards a History of Objectivity and Impartiality, in Bromley, M. and OMalley, T. A Journalism Reader, London: Routledge, 1997 at 303.

21 Street, J. (n 5) at 22.

22 Entman, R. (n 9) at 30.

23 Street, J. (n 5) at 22.

24 Street, J. (n 5) at 23.

25 Gordon, A. Kittross, J. and Reuss, C. Controversies in Media Ethics, New York: Longman Publishers, 1996 at 81.

26 Tuchman, G. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality, New York: The Free Press, 1978 at 216.

27 Wissner-Gross, E. Unbiased Editing in a Diverse Society, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1999 at xii.

28 Bugeja, M. Living Ethics: Developing Values in Mass Communication, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.

29 Bugeja, M. (n 28).

30 Schudson, M. Objectivity, News Management and the Critical Culture, in Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, New York: Basic Books, 1978 at 184.

31 Schudson, M. (n 30) at 184.

32 Sigelman, L. Reporting the News: An Organisational Analysis, The American Journal of Sociology, 79 (1) 1973: 132 151 at 148.

33 Coser, R. Insulation from Observability and Types of Social Conformity, American Sociological Review 26 (February), 28 39.

34 Sigelman, L. (n 32) at 144.

35 Entman, R. (n 9) at 31.

36 Gordon, A. Kittross, J. and Reuss, C. (n 25) at 93.

37 Entman, R. (n 9) at 31.

38 Street, J. (n 5) at 17.

39 Lichtenberg, J. Lichtenberg, J. In Defence of Objectivity, in Curran, J and Gurevitch, M (eds), Mass Media and Society, London: Edward Arnold, 1991 at 216.

40 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 216.

41 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 223.

42 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 225.

43 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 225.

44 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 225.

45 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 225.

46 Wissner-Gross, E. (n 27) at 249.

47 Lichtenberg, J. (n 39) at 221.

48 Wissner-Gross, E. (n 27) at 249.

49 Wissner-Gross, E. (n 27) at 249.

50 Wissner-Gross, E. (n 27) at 4.

51 Wissner-Gross, E. (n 27) at 4.

52 Wissner-Gross, E. (n 27) at 249.

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