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 in China.

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 news.

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 reported.

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 with mining.

- Sicknesses are being reported and may be caused by pollution from the mines.

- Better schools are being built using grants from mining companies.

- 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 claims.

- Government officials have been caught taking bribes from mining companies.

- 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.

Dishonest News

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 biased reporting).

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 sources.

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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