Accusations of news outlets exhibiting a bias is a commonplace criticism I’ve grown accustomed to, and frankly quite bored of. During the Gaza conflict of 2014, the BBC received over 900 complaints of showing a pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli bias, closely followed by over 800 complaints for a pro-Israeli/anti-Palestinian bias. The most complaints received that month were about playing the wrong episode of Pointless – well, at least we know what’s important here. Of course we have high expectations of the media to report the truth rather than their own version of it. But how feasible is that expectation?
Whilst a rise in explicit newspaper partisanship has occurred in the last few decades, newspapers have always, at least to some extent, leaned towards a particular political persuasion. You can often predict the way a specific news story will be covered according to which television channel you’re watching. In fact, many of us will chose to consume our news from sources based on that prediction. And yet, claiming that a news outlet is at all biased is very much a criticism.
Understandably, we expect honest and truthful reporting, but the way a topic is discussed can never be entirely neutral, nor can it claim to be reporting the absolute truth. Although we can identify differing extents of bias, or varied levels of validity and verifiability within a report, there is no such thing as an entirely innocent and unbiased report. This is because, even if it were somehow possible, we don’t have the time, tools or epistemic certainty to report news in such an imagined way.
A common explanation for why the news is reported in the way that it is, is that news outlets are ultimately driven by profit, and accordingly the most shocking stories are those that will attract the largest audience. Whilst it may be true, this reason alone is not a sufficient explanation and is perhaps unfair. When reporting and consuming our news, we are limited by time. Indeed, journalists should aim to give a balanced account of events, but they are incapable of ever giving a complete one. For most topics, hours would be required to even come close to a complete account, whilst for others, days would still not suffice.
Of course media bias isn’t just about what is reported, but also, how it is reported. Oversimplified headlines that exaggerate and are made to shock us are often guilty of painting a skewed image of reality. Aside from lacking time, we lack the tools to report without bias, because despite what we may believe, everything we say must assume some values. It’s very difficult to explain something without using any emotive language, but often using no emotive language is seen as an inaccurate description of events. The choice between using the words ‘died’, ‘killed’ or ‘murdered’ presume intent and prejudge permissibility. Even in its barest form, language itself is not value free.
But ultimately, even if we did have the tools and the time to report completely and with no bias, we lack the epistemic certainty to claim that we are reporting the truth. We don’t need to go as far as to say that we can’t be certain about anything to accept that this is the case for most things. Whilst we may be able to claim that something is certainly false, it would be arrogant for any reporter to claim that they are reporting the truth with certainty. Instead, we should accept that they will always be reporting a version of it.
Now, I’m not suggesting that an intentional bias and agenda in news coverage is ever justified; quite the contrary. But we’ve got to accept that it’s not the presence of the bias that is problematic – the presence itself is inevitable – it’s the extremity and impact of it that can lead to ignorance, hatefulness and division. For example, reporting as your headline that a shooting was carried out by ‘Muslim terrorists’ without any evidence that it was an act of terror or religiously motivated is not just biased and unfounded, but socially divisive. Similarly, speculating that a mass shooter suffered from a certain mental disorder without any expert or informed knowledge creates stigma towards individuals with mental illness, and its effects cannot be reversed even if retracted.
Rather than solely criticising a reporter or news outlet according to standards of truth that are skewed by bias and agenda, maybe we should also judge them according to the impact and intent of this bias. Perhaps we shouldn’t follow specific news outlets because they say what we want to hear, but rather because they share our core values and assumptions. Ultimately we’re all biased and harbour preconceptions and prejudices that are impossible to eradicate entirely however hard we try. So beyond seeking fair and balanced coverage of news, we should also consider the impact of what is said in the absence of certainty, in the presence of emotive language and amidst a time of ever increasing political polarisation.