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media bias
July 15, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Bias Beware

A few months ago, South Korea issued an imminent and vital nuclear-threat warning. The main article on Stuff at the time was about South Korean pop sensation Psy. In the byline of a story on Sea Shepherd, The New Zealand Herald described Pete Bethune as a “war-hero” before being pressured to change it to “activist”. When Nigella Lawson was strangled by her husband, 3 News ran with the pithy and insensitive headline “Nigella Lawson’s wedding: a recipe for disaster”.

 

It’s been said that although there are three estates in government – the executive, legislativeand judicial branches of the state – there is a fourth, non-governmental estate that is far more important than them all. The media is a central pillar in any modern society that identifies itself as democratic and free. It fulfils the essential role of holding the government to account, and so it’s no surprise that the suppression of a free press is the first step on the road to despotism and totalitarianism. The right to vote is null and void if you have no idea who or what it is you’re voting for at the ballot box. In society’s great quest to make informed decisions about the way in which it orders itself, the media equips us with the requisite knowledge to do so. The media shines a light on the cavities of state power.

More generally, the press “may serve as a kind of moral barometer against which the audience gauges the parameters of acceptable opinion,” says Peter Thompson, lecturer of Media Studies at Victoria University. The term ‘media’ literally means an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed, or transferred. The media facilitates and directs the exchange of knowledge and information in society; it is the setting for the important conversations that play out which inform our moral and social progress. Our views and interests are validated when we learn that others hold the same. Our attitudes both shape and are shaped by the press, whose job it is to write the first draft of history.

So does the media wield this power responsibly? It’s a pity that, despite the industry’s noble heritage and goals, most people would agree that Stuff.co.nz is frankly a bit shit. I mean, hire a sub-editor for God’s sake. 3 News has that awkward, unfunny, time-wasting interplay between the presenters. You know that Seven Sharp is gobshite when people would prefer to watch that sanctimonious wanker John Campbell instead. Talkback radio is a place where fools listen to fools who have nothing to say, say it. But worse than all this is the flagrant bias the media as a collective constantly spouts.

Everybody sees bias in the media, but which way it goes is in the eye of the beholder; those who vote National are apt to believe in a left-wing bias, and vice versa. Some say that, because journalists are generally of the type who are interested in the liberal domains of the arts and the humanities, there exists a slight left-wing bias. However, the argument that any one political viewpoint is consistently shown in a favourable light is a mere conspiracy theory.

Professor Thompson believes “there is a valid argument that the media by and large reflect and reproduce the prevailing political-economic ideology.” He says the more correct view is to say that, rather than having an overarching political bias, the media exhibits different biases on different issues. “At the same time as we have seen a significant shift to the neoliberal right in economic terms, since the 1970s we have also seen a shift to the liberal left in cultural terms.” It is a bias in favour of the present.

Although often pernicious and difficult to quantify, the harm caused by bias is real. The press can make or break a person’s career. John Key’s active courting of the media during his first election campaign was awarded with a ‘honeymoon’ period lasting the first year of his prime ministership. As a result, New Zealanders were unaware of his government’s frequent use of the democratically dubious practice of having the House sit under urgency, robbing it of the ability to take time and care when passing important legislation. Margaret Thatcher had the opposite problem with the media, complaining that if her critics saw her walking over the Thames, they would say it was because she couldn’t swim.

It’s too often overlooked that when the flames of racism flare up, New Zealand’s media has invariably been there to fan them, and continues to be. The characterisation of the Chinese immigrants during the 19th-century gold rushes as the ‘Yellow Peril’ led to a poll tax being imposed on Chinese entrants to New Zealand – a tax based on nothing more than the randomness of the lottery of birth. Today, the media continues to demonise the Chinese. With all the hubbub about the Crafar farms sale, you will no doubt be surprised to learn that of the nearly 900,000 hectares of land sold to foreigners between 2007 and 2012, only 223 of those were bought by the Chinese. The tiny country of Liechtenstein owns ten times more New Zealand land than does China. Director James Cameron and singer Shania Twain jointly own 100 times more. Take a second to mull that over. How do those facts compare to the impression you got from the media?

More recently, the Chinese have been blamed for Auckland’s high house prices. That Australians own far more houses than do the Chinese, and that prices would come down if only the Council would relax its ban on building residential homes on huge swaths of land on the outskirts of Auckland, are treated as inconvenient facts by reporters desperate to take advantage of the xenophobic feelings New Zealanders have.

But is it all the media’s fault? Nicky Hager, investigative journalist and author of The Hollow Men, says there are three places to lay the blame. First, he argues that journalists are indeed partially at fault. In their quest to present balanced and fair news, journos often engage in tokenistic box ticking. They will present the two extremes of the argument to show that they’ve done their job, but neglect to show the majority view of those in the middle. Some stories simply don’t have two sides, but journalists will bend over backwards to find them. Will McAvoy, in the US TV show The Newsroom, drily observed that if the Republican Party announced the world was flat, the headlines would read “Politicians Disagree on Shape of Planet”.

Secondly, Hager argues that PR people, spin doctors, lobbyists and interest groups are the biggest skewers of news. Journalists work in a strained and stressed environment, faced with a torrent of news, tasked with sifting through endless press releases to meet constant deadlines. Reporters aren’t often experts in the areas they are reporting on, and Hager argues that balance is lost because “the media falls unconsciously for the viewpoint of so-called experts”. He points to the media’s positive treatment of rising house prices as an example of a PR campaign run by the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand. For the people who don’t own homes, increasing house prices simply means having to pay more in rent. Increasing house prices are one of the worst forms of inflation, particularly for students. But when house prices rise, that side of the story isn’t reported and instead it’s a “sign of a buoyant economy”.

But when the REINZ wins, we students lose. The Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2010, which gave disproportionate power to landlords and property managers over tenants, was under-reported in the media. When it was, a very one-sided view was presented. Most of those who submitted to the Select Committee were lobbyists for the property industry. As a result of the media bias against students, the bill passed and rents continued to get ever higher. Media bias is just another form of discrimination against minorities.

Finally, argues Hager, the capitalistic funding system of the media distorts the incentive to produce objective news. The media has a dual goal: in order to maximise their profits and please their sponsors, they must maximise consumption of their news. Naturally, if a story about Kimye’s baby North is likely to appeal to the audience more than the latest dire statistic about starvation in Africa, the editor often has no choice but to run the former. The main consumers of newspapers and magazines and TV news programmes are middle-aged, and that explains why the narrative is directed at them. Other groups, such as youth, are portrayed as token caricatures of themselves. Economic interests are able to dominate coverage at the expense of the less privileged.

There is a fourth explanation for the bias: inevitability. The inability to be completely objective is an inherent fact of news production. Questions of whether an attractive or unflattering photograph of someone accompanies their story, of which stories are reported on, of how prominent each story is, of whether the story is on the front page or hidden in the back, of how much weight is given to each side, of which aspect of the story to focus on etc., simply cannot be answered in the neutral. Further, what’s termed ‘objectively’ true is dependent on the wider context of social and historical mores existing at the time of writing. The media’s treatment of gay marriage in 2013 would have been absolutely shocking in the 1950s. So, media bias is both mostly unintentional, in that rarely is it the case that we are being knowingly deceived, and mostly unavoidable, in that humans can’t help but be fallible.

So, the media is pretty shit when it comes to being impartial. Is there anything we can do to improve the situation in New Zealand? One solution which has been bandied about over the years is to move to a public-funding model of news. Although TVNZ and Radio New Zealand are publicly funded, both are required to operate as a profitable commercial business. If that requirement were removed, journalism for journalism’s sake would flourish. Although there is a general reticence to involve government in the media for fear of interference and corruption, other pillars of our democracy, such as the courts, maintain their independence despite technically being in the pocket of the state. Salient itself is funded by, but independent from, the University, and there is no shortage of vocal opposition to many University policies within these pages.

The internet has revolutionised the rapidity and fluidity of information-sharing. Although traditional media remains the primary source of information, the news is being decentralised more and more so that now many people learn their news from Twitter, Facebook and blogs. People can access news directly from the source, as happened during the Arab Spring when millions of young Arabs turned to non-conventional means of news-reporting. The internet is likely to be the biggest driver of change in the industry since the printing press.

Nicky Hager is not so optimistic about the internet as saviour. Of the shift to internet-based news, he says: “It’s far from clear that the news media will be economically viable.” Hager also feels that the anonymity granted on the internet retards rather than enhances political discussion. Finally, he worries that blogging has issues with ‘confirmation bias’, that is, people will only seek out and read blogs which conform to their own views. This leads to a false sense that their views are the correct ones, as they feel that everybody else feels the same way. Hager’s not alone—numerous editorials in our national newspapers have argued against the internet as a new medium. However, it is important to remember that the occupations of both Hager and newspaper editors—in print media—will create an inherent bias in their perception of the internet.

When people complain of bias in the media, it is often unclear whether they want the media to be more neutral, or just to be biased toward their own opinions. Counter-intuitively then, the cure for impartiality may be to acknowledge and encourage the sickness. Instead of attempting to be objective, news outlets should explicitly declare their views and preferences. Journalists shouldn’t be able to hide behind a veil of supposed impartiality. They should say what their political leanings are so that we are better able to decide the extent to which we should trust their judgment. In America, everyone knows Fox News is Republican and MSNBC is Democrat. In Britain, all the major papers have a front-page editorial on election day saying which party they want to win. Why not say it explicitly in New Zealand?

The media can’t help but fall prey to the dangers of bias. It is a weakness of the human condition which allows reporters to be reduced to mere mouthpieces of special-interest groups; which allows entertaining stories to outsell informative ones; which means the media seeks a cause, an angle, a reason, a hero, a winner, a loser, someone to blame. In New Zealand we blame the Chinese. Students are the losers. But ineptitude of the fourth estate needn’t stymie the discussions we as a people need to be having. Readers need to be sceptical of everything they read. We need to yell for better news. Journalists need to create the market for the real stories. We are better than cat stories. Let the conversation continue.

——

Disclaimer: Cam and Duncan struggle to define their political views, but would say they are broadly libertarian. They believe every individual should be free to pursue happiness in any way they please, insofar as no-one else is hurt in that pursuit. This includes legalising drugs, support for marriage equality, and support for open immigration. Their economic views are more complex and less well-developed, but generally they believe that government intervention in the economy, while well-meaning, often produces worse results than if things had been left to individuals and businesses to decide. Their central concern is for the poor and the persecuted.

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