It would be useful to have a set of broadly acceptable criteria for media bias so that it might be readily identifiable, or so that the legitimate case – ‘here, in fact, is bias’ – can be argued. Appropriate charges could then be levelled at the creators of the offending content in a dispassionate way, and in a way it would be hard to argue with. Obviously, it’s not good enough to cry bias every time we see or read or hear something that doesn’t fit with our own preferred narrative. On the contrary: complaining about content just because it undermines our own idea as to what’s right and wrong, and as to which parties are the agents of each, is itself reflective of bias.
The antidote – to meet the charge (or the perception) that we just don’t like or agree with what we hear – is a rigorous concept of what constitutes media bias, that picks out specific telling features in a given instance. Armed with such a system, we can be confident of defending a claim of bias, and can require a similar degree of rigour from others. Developing an apparatus for detection and calling out media bias might mean picking out elements in style or content that follow certain patterns, regardless of the specific leaning. Given a set of criteria which can be employed to determine bias, a detractor must either refute the criteria or their application in a specific instance. Conversely, given an accusation of media bias from another, we might, with criteria in mind, ask for a sensible detailing of the transgression.
Criteria for media bias
- Emotive, immoderate or loaded language
- Unfounded statements presented as evidenced fact
- Blurring of lines in kinds of content: e.g. puff or opinion presented as ‘news’
- One-sided reportage: disproportionate voice given to some parties
- Rhetoric, not dialectic: the presentation of the strongest points that make a case, without the strongest points that make a countervailing case
- Selective reportage – omission of salient elements
- Omission of qualification of and caveats on what is presented as true
- Selective framing of stories or events
A list like this is a good place to start. If somebody is presenting PR as news, attempting to propagandise, persuade, and so on, rather than serve up (to their best ability) truths and so accommodate the interests of readers, they almost invariably fall foul of some of these criteria. If good journalism – journalism of integrity – is grounded in the avoidance of these ills, it is not very different in this regard to good academic writing: some of the formal conventions in writing scholarly essays and reports, as well as in journalism, are geared to keeping to such standards.
There are, though, at least three broad caveats to be taken into account:
- Total impartiality or objectivity in vantage on events, issues, is not possible, and may not be desirable
- Proceeding from the previous point, some vantages or framings, are taken to be beyond the pale, and what is considered beyond the pale is not uniform. In determining which views ought to be privileged or deprivileged, more or less represented, we again bring a specific world-view to bear.
- Real-world forces and powers have effect in media, and the more institutionalised a media organisation is, the more this is the case, though we might want it otherwise. The temptation to demand total purity of deed and purpose from media practitioners might be tempered with recognition of some hard-to-avoid constraints.
These limitations among further considerations to be treated in a follow-up post.