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The problem in media today is not bias or a lack of objectivity, as is so often argued, but rather a press that pretends to be something it is not.
Journalism has never been a completely objective pursuit. Every writer has his or her own values, and it is dishonest to hide these. As George Orwell made clear, writing cannot be “genuinely free from political bias”. So long as accuracy is maintained – no important facts are left out – and so long as the goal is to inform, the approach is more or less a good one. The problem before us is that, as ever, these guiding notions are being tossed out of editorial rooms in an attempt to garner influence, or simply mislead, while appearing objective at face value.
The great achievement of our digital media age, where the flow of information is impossible to stop, has been to move the news cycle beyond traditional control. Before this, a story or perspective that did not fit an agenda simply would not make it beyond a gatekeeper’s desk, and there was some amount of confidence that its non-existence would remain as such. Hence the notorious New York Times slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Manipulating news priorities is now a bit more difficult. Nonetheless, there are nifty ways to get it done. The flurry of information allows for creative ways to bury, or misconstrue, the stories that do not fit a chosen agenda. In spite of this, we want good, accurate news, so it is important to keep a keen eye on the hackwork.
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The essential danger to beware of is a veil of objectivity. For instance, “Fair & Balanced” is the slogan of Fox News, and probably the closest example you can get to an outright editorial lie.
Some more recently-emerged sources are a bit subtler.
Buzzfeed, for example, claims no agenda other than that of publishing news that is “worth sharing” with ease and haste; quick, necessary updates, if you will. Taking that principle as given, one would reasonably expect from it news items sufficiently broad for mass consumption but constructed and prioritised in a general enough fashion so as to leave the conclusions up to the reader. What one gets instead is a sarcasm-laden feed of political stories written to please a soft-Left consensus. (In the Fox case, the feed sprints, contra its slogan, to the hard-Right end.) This article illustrates how Buzzfeed “reported” on Bill Shorten’s press conference announcing Labor’s formal opposition to a marriage equality plebiscite. A bit affected, to say the least.
There is a clear attempt to show people only what they want to see and how they want to see it, simply because that is the best way to maximise the amount of times a piece is shared. But which is more important: popularity for popularity’s sake, or something that is legitimately informative, even if it is a little less entertaining? Again, the salient problem is not a lack of objectivity, but a style of presentation within the mainstream press that feigns objectivity (like the poor soapbox effort that is this Tweet from Sky News Australia).
It is impossible to expect some kind of utopian press reform, but at the very least a benefit of polarisation and diversity, and the harm such a benefit could do to outlets that strive for a consensus or received wisdom.
It is not that there is no market for the truth – there definitely is – rather the market favours the most comforting version. Yet a truly informative press must report the inconvenient and the uncomfortable, and avoid an editorial situation in which those things become disallowed. (Maybe a cliché, awkwardly worded though it may be, is permitted here: If you can’t stand the light of day, get out of the sun.)
At the very least, if there is going to be a strong bias, it should be a clearly-indicated one. Some of the classic ideological publications do get that bit correct. You know, for example, that when you view The Nation or Counterpunch you are getting the “voice” of the Left, and you will find a similar situation with National Review and The Spectator on the Right. They are not pretending to give you anything else, and that is a good thing. Indeed, an honest bias can sometimes be the necessary ingredient for chasing a story that might have otherwise been ignored.
Perhaps the best antidote, then, is a readership that has a keen interest in news for its own sake, for the accurate instead of the sensational, and a resistance to the comforts of a confirmation bias. Christopher Hitchens once quipped that he became a journalist so he did not have to rely on the news for information.
He was on to something.