Objective News Reporting Is a Myth
December 16, 2012
Whether they are working on television or for newspapers or
online magazines, news reporters are supposed to tell us about
the important things happening in our neighborhoods and our world.
We might hope for objectivity in their reporting, although with
television networks Fox News and MSNBC appearing to be the propaganda
arms of the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, we
have little reason for this hope. Still, some reporters certainly
try to be objective. But how possible is that goal?
It isn't realistic to think that objectivity exists or can
exist in news reporting. Why? Because the single biggest reason
for the "slanting" of the news is not conscious manipulation
but the inescapable unconscious assumptions that all reporters
(and all humans) work from. What a person or persons in a news
organization already believe and assume determines the choice
of what event to report on and then what elements of that story
should be reported. This inevitably introduces all sorts of biases
into all news gathering and reporting efforts.
What is News?
There are unlimited stories to report on out there, but time
on television, space in a paper and bandwidth on a website is
limited, so should a reporter cover the building of a new school,
or the opening of a new clothing store, or the famine in some
African country? Even if every fact is correct, choosing to cover
one story over another reveals a bias, doesn't it? A reporter
could try to ignore his own feelings about what's important,
but even then his decision as to what the public should know
will come from mostly unchallenged assumptions about what's important
to the audience. Apparently what celebrities are up to in their
personal lives is more important than the crackdown on protests
There is an important question here (it seems important to
me anyhow, according to my own biases). It is this: what is a
reporter's job? Is it to convey the news that is most likely
to immediately affect viewers? Is it to show them what's going
on in all of the world, or only in their part of the world? If
it's a mix of the two where should the balance be? Is a reporter's
job to report only what the majority of the audience wants to
see or read, even if that is mostly celebrity gossip? There is
no clear answer to this, but various answers are demonstrated
by any particular news organization's choice of what to cover
As an aside, let me suggest that if you think you are learning
about most of the "big" events in the world, try watching
foreign news broadcasts, or reading foreign newspapers online.
Every source might provide a bit more local news because it is
relevant to its target audience, but you might be surprised by
how much more world news is reported on by almost every news
source that originates outside of the United States (we are a
very insular society here). One could argue that there is no
objective usefulness to knowing what's happening in the rest
of the world, but then our tendency to get involved in many wars
overseas makes that argument weak, to say the least.
How Should News Be Reported?
Once a particular news item is chosen as worthy of being reported
on, then we have all the same problems of bias in how that news
is prepared and presented. If the official unemployment rate
reported by the government drops from 9% to 8%, most reporters
would note that, but if the drop is due to the fact that the
government does not count the many people who stopped getting
unemployment checks, should that be reported? Most people would
say yes, although in practice whether this kind of additional
information is reported probably depends on whether the reporter
likes the current president and so whether he wants his administration
to look good or bad.
But let's step back for a moment and consider some deeper
assumptions and biases. It seems radical or at least impolite
to call government pronouncements a lie, so it is rarely done.
But consider what it means if 10% of those who want to be working
do not have a job; isn't that objectively a 10% unemployment
rate? If it is, and if that information is widely available,
then those who manipulate the statistics to pronounce that the
rate is 8% are objectively lying. Why do we not see a news broadcast
start with something like, "The Bureau of Labor Statistics
lied again today, saying that the unemployment rate has dropped
to 8% when in fact 10% of those who are looking for work are
currently unemployed." Is it not worth reporting that the
government is lying to the people?
My own biases could be involved in this example, but I suspect
that most readers will agree that government officials occasionally
say things they know to be untrue, which is the definition of
a lie, and yet these statements are not reported as lies. This
reflexive respect for and deference to authority is ingrained
in most humans, including reporters. It affects how stories are
But most biases are introduce in even more subtle ways. For
example, how should it be reported if the average profit margin
of oil companies goes from 5% to 7.5%? Should it just be reported
like that, with no elaboration? Probably people want more information
and/or analysis, so it could be reported as a rise of 2.5% in
the profit margin. Then again, 7.5% is 50% higher than 5%, so
it could be reported as "Oil company profits increase 50%!"
How the math is done (both ways are technically correct) is largely
a matter of what impression a reporter wants to make on the viewer,
which is likely to be decided according to how he or she feels
about oil companies or profits. Should the fact that companies
like Apple and Coca Cola have margins closer to 30% be reported
on as a relevant part of the story, or is this just an attempt
to make the oil companies look less greedy?
If you were a reporter, and you had to report on new gold
and silver mines in some poor country, which of the following
facts would you follow up on if you could not cover every aspect
of the story due to time constraints, and which facts or parts
of the story would you think are most relevant in any case?
- Poverty is declining due to the jobs provided by the mines.
- Injuries are increasing because of the risks associated
- Sicknesses are being reported and may be caused by pollution
from the mines.
- Better schools are being built using grants from mining
- Wages are higher than they have ever been in the area.
- Wages are lower than in most of the world.
- Mining companies from the rich countries own all of the
- Government officials have been caught taking bribes from
- A poll shows that 80% of the residents want the mining companies
to be there.
- Some former employees say they were fired for speaking out
against labor and safety practices.
- It is estimated that the standard of living for local residents
will be greatly improved within ten years and incomes will double.
- It is estimated that 90% of the net economic value created
by the mines will accrue to the mining companies and the countries
they come from.
Most things that are happening in the world are truly complex,
and can be looked at from a variety of perspectives. Which facets
to explore and which facts to select as relevant in any given
news report are choices for which there are not really any objective
criteria. What you think is important will not be what others
think is important. Try this experiment. Imagine that you are
a reporter and you have to focus on three of the facts from the
above list. Choose the three you think are objectively the most
important. Now find your most objective and reasonable friend
and ask him or her to do the same. I'll bet the resulting choices
will not be the same as your own.
Although most biases are not intentional, there is some outright
dishonesty in news reporting. There are "video news releases"
or VNRs, for example. These are created by marketing and public
relations firms, advertising agencies, corporations, and government
agencies. They are designed to appear as actual news reports,
and are distributed to news organizations to be used as filler
on slow news nights. They are meant to shape public opinion or
sell products, but when they are shown on television they are
not normally identified as anything other than news. They are
essentially "planted" stories or propaganda passing
as news. A few years back it was found that these VNRs were used
several times per month by about 80% of U.S. news directors according
to one Nielsen Media Research Survey.
Fortunately VNRs seem to be used less frequently on television
now, but they can be found all over the internet, and yes, the
intent is to deceive. What other reason would there be for making
them appear as a news reports? I just watched a VNR on a supposed
"news" website. It was about new online viruses, and
all of the "experts" interviewed were employed by a
company that provides security systems for computers. It was
presented as straight news.
Where to Get Your News
Whether or not reporters are honest, there really is no way
to be objective. This is why the "alternative" press
can be very useful to understanding the world. Each independent
source has some obvious bias, but most do not lie outright. Because
the bias is often out in the open, it is easy to get good information
from many different alternative sources while not adopting any
of the biases present in the individual sources. This is why,
for example, I subscribe to both Forbes and Mother Jones magazines.
Forbes reports information I often don't see elsewhere, from
a capitalist perspective (bias) that is useful, and Mother Jones
digs deeply into stories that almost no other magazines report
on, sometimes uncovering what happens when capitalists are allowed
to buy government policy (my interpretation of their great but
Fortunately we now have more choices than ever for news sources
thanks to the internet. Just search "alternative news"
and click on a few results. You'll soon be reading all about
things you didn't even know were happening in the world. You'll
find a lot of "news" from right-wing conspiracy theorists
and leftist propagandists, but even here you will learn some
secrets about the world that you can follow up on using other
For a broader understanding of your world then, seek out many
news sources. It is better to simply note the particular biases
shown by each reporter and read between the lines for the important
information than to pretend or hope that news can be objective
if you somehow find the "right" source.
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