Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Bias has been present in mass media since the first whirring of the printing press. In the modern era, large and prominent news organisations are often accused of bias, whether towards or against a political party, ideology or candidate. The BBC allegedly displays a number of biases: left-wing, right-wing, pro-Establishment, pro-Labour, and so on. Such accusations are serious, as it shatters the journalistic ideal of the unbiased discovery and the objective delivery of facts.
There are three main opportunities to present a partial and incomplete view of the world: story selection, the coverage and the article itself. Editors and section editors are the gate-keepers, deciding which stories get covered. Due to the limitations on newspaper space or television time, editors must whittle down a large pool of interesting chronicles to fit the newspaper space. Whilst it is possible for the editors to select stories based on their own passions, the decisions are usually made on audience expectation. This is the ‘market model’ of journalism, where journalists tailor their stories to what the intended audience wants to read. The strict space limitations mean journalists pursue simplification and sensationalism, condensing complex issues into short segments. To widen the pool of potential articles, news organisations usually allow viewers to help provide stories. Refusal to print a story may also emanate from legal concerns, usually libel, or fear of unnecessarily upsetting readers, culminating towards a ‘mainstream’ bias of inoffensive ideas.
Coverage of a particular story can also present bias, as stories favouring one particular worldview may be given higher prominence within the paper or newsreel. In 1995, the verdict of the OJ Simpson murder trial coincided with Tony Blair’s party conference speech. According to Peter Sissons, then-BBC anchor, Blair’s press secretary Alistair Campbell faxed both the BBC and ITN to highlight the “importance” of Blair’s speech. The BBC complied, putting the speech ahead of the trial verdict on the 6 o’clock News, whilst ITN ignored the request. During national debates, such as whether to join the euro, broadcasters are expected to remain neutral by giving equal coverage to both sides. This expectation comes from charters which demand unbiased and fair coverage of news events, but charters may not always be followed. Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, accused the BBC of supporting the euro currency in its coverage and presentation of events. If news organisations cannot be unbiased due to the journalists that work within them, then those same organisations may struggle to provide equal of fair airtime to two differing ideas.
The story itself is where most bias is manufactured. The individual journalist may have unwritten assumptions about the world, but reporting on an issue means we see the world through their eyes. Word choice, tone and labeling all pass through the reporter’s prism. Bias through selection and omission are difficult to observe, as absent facts and missing key information causes these particular biases. The Foxconn scandal surrounding the number of suicides in the large Chinese factory, garnered much attention from the American and British media, due to Apple and other computer companies using the factory to produce their goods. However, few articles delivered the key fact: the average number of suicides in China. Foxconn had about 900,000 workers in 2010, and suffered 18 attempted suicides, but the annual suicide rate in China is approximately 13 men and 14.8 women per 100,000 people. The working conditions in the factory were shocking, but the suicide rate was significantly below the national average.
The attributed writer is not the only person involved in the article’s presentation. Sub-editors check the spelling and grammar, select pictures, write captions and compose the headlines. They may cut and expand the article to fit the requisite newspaper space. Sub-editors can create headlines, additions, excisions and captions that are antithetical to the whole article.
News organisations are formed of all the people who work in them, so to that extent, all news media is biased, because no-one is truly dispassionate, balanced and objective about every issue. A political homogeneity, which can occur organically within a news organisation, projects their shared presumptions and prejudices onto the readership. Editors can no longer decide what you read, since the internet allows people to consume news from a very diverse range of sources, and online newspapers remove the usual limits on space, depth and wording. The greater proliferation of media has meant that old ideas and biases may be challenged; given two interpretations of an event or issue, when clashed against each other freely, facts expel fallacies.