Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Myth of Media Neutrality

“I don’t have an opinion on it,” said the black reporter answering a #BlackLivesMatter protester last December, before realizing how bad the answer sounded, “I mean, I have an opinion on it of course, a personal opinion, but I can’t talk about it publicly. I have to be neutral in my reporting, not take sides.”

“Neutral?” asked the protester, a little incredulous.

“Well, I don’t have to be neutral if we’re talking about murdering a child or something, but yeah, I have to be neutral.”

I won’t mention the reporter’s name or affiliation, because I don’t intend to call the reporter out personally. Instead, I want to explore the ideas behind the answer given, and talk a little about the myth of “media neutrality.”

Neutrality is the camouflage worn by a media that cannot help but be biased in any number of ways. Wikipedia gives a pretty succinct rundown of the many ways bias can influence reporting:
“Practical limitations to media neutrality include the inability of journalists to report all available stories and facts, and the requirement that selected facts be linked into a coherent narrative. Government influence, including overt and covert censorship, biases the media in some countries, for example North Korea and Burma. Market forces that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers.”
There’s also a good breakdown on media bias at Student News Daily.

Consumers of media often resent bias, especially when the bias is against their own strongly held view. Consumers claim to want their news straight, without interpretation, a “just the facts” approach, but should not be surprised when bias creeps. Bias intrudes even when when the media undertakes the seemingly simple task of deciding which facts in a story are important. Many media outlets, understanding that consumers claim to want their news unbiased, have policies in place and an official position on neutrality, even as they know true neutrality is neither possible nor desirable.

The best example of this is perhaps Fox News, which has a strong bias against “progressive” ideas and a strong bias for “conservative” ideologies. Fox News attempted to hide this bias behind the advertising line, “Fair and Balanced,” for a host of sound economic reasons. For one thing, it provides cover for advertisers who want to reach a target audience but do not want to be strongly regarded as having a political affiliation for fear of alienating potential customers.

Other media outlets also have biases. The Nation is progressive. The Wall Street Journal is conservative. Locally, RI Future.org is proudly progressive and the Providence Journal is quietly conservative. Like Fox, the ProJo has pretensions of neutrality.

The local broadcast news stations, 6, 10 and 12, all feign neutrality as well. Some reporters might even believe that they are unbiased in their reporting. When a news outlet gets to a certain size, or finds itself in a competitive market for advertising dollars, pretensions of neutrality become important to the bottom line.

Talk radio seems to be an outlier here, but if recent stories are to be believed, even as advertisers bolt from the poisonous toxic atmosphere of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, conservative groups appear to be pumping money in to keep them on the air.

In that sense, conservative talk radio is an outlier, because most media outlets are not driven to the right or the left of the political spectrum by top down demands from corporate bosses, they are driven by market forces.
“Conventional wisdom holds that publishers impose their views on newsrooms. Not so, say [economists Mark] Gentzkow and [Jesse] Shapiro. What actually happens is both more innocent and more insidious. Papers with more Republican readers tend to provide more conservative stories and language; papers in more liberal areas lean left in their coverage and story selection.”
The market then, becomes the ultimate bias. The reporter I quoted at the beginning of this piece has career goals. The reporter wants to move up the professional ladder. To do that, the reporter has to play by certain rules. If the reporter started boldly staking out political positions when reporting stories, the company would first reprimand and ultimately fire the reporter. Job prospects for the reporter would diminish rapidly.

Reporters working for medium and large size media companies don’t make minimum wage. They don’t have to send their kids to public schools. They don’t worry about being able to afford decent health care or about their car breaking down. The concerns of the media class are the concerns of the professional class. The ups and the downs of the stock market mean something real to the professional class. The professional class has a kind of privilege that most people do not have.

This is their bias, and it’s why I believe that instead of manufacturing the illusion of neutrality, honesty demands that the media be upfront about their status, their privilege and their bias. The media is always advocating for something, even if it’s only the status quo.

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
- Elie Weisel

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