Essay / Jane Adams


by Jane Adams

The existence of political bias in modern media is largely a debate of semantics. All perspectives are framed by the foundation that synthesis of information commands judgement, but a key point of contention lies in whether an absolute truth exists.

This debate arises at an attempt to quantify bias. Some argue that a measure of bias is possible through semiotics and a flexible model of journalistic culture, but others argue that the experiment lacks a constant: an “independent reality” by which to measure all derivative media realities. While the argument seems superfluous, the resultant lens for analysis of media bias varies significantly in its placement of responsibility, being either on a systemic ideology or individual interpretation. Thus, proponents of a truth and lies definition of bias advocate acknowledgement, information, and analysis of the dominant ideology in order to reconcile with values of the minority, as established under democracy. Conversely, those who characterize all truth as subjective emphasize internal judgement with regard to the source’s perspective and credibility as a means of subjectively measuring media bias, arguing that an objective measure is impossible by nature of information synthesis. All agree that media is subjective, but some argue for adherence to a standard of objectivity based on social values, while others cite the transient nature of social values as an obstacle to ultimate objectivity.

Ultimately, media bias is best addressed by an evaluation of credibility that aspires to objectivity, and due voice to all interpretations based on that evaluation.

Proponents of a bias grounded in the dichotomy between reality and fiction believe that the dominant systemic ideology propagates media bias by selectively absconding the truth by templates of narrative, semiology, and aesthetics. For example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky characterize U.S. media as influenced in the domestic arena by corporate interests, and on a global scale by the foreign policy initiatives of the U.S. Government. They argue that media is “manufacturing consent” to the value system of the majority when “journalists operate double standards.” In one such foreign policy case, with regard to democratic elections, those of allied and developed nations were elevated as feats of egalitarian infrastructure, while the credibility of democratic elections in disparate and developing nations was challenged or undermined. In this way, they argue that it is vital that a consistent standard of fact exist to combat ideological hegemony over journalistic ethics. Similarly, the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) postulates that “news is not a neutral and natural phenomenon; it is rather the manufactured production of ideology.” They identified partisan politics and corporate values in domestic disputes, especially with regard to labor unions, and xenophobic underpinnings to foreign policy matters, such as in news coverage of Palestinian asylum seekers. The GUMG holds that these biases are not deliberate, but rather “shaped by systems of public relations and lobbying for a particular point of view.” In an attempt to quantify media bias, GUMG researchers assigned connotation to words, whether pejorative or unctuous, and tracked their use in regard to media coverage of various stories. They also considered air time, order of appearance, and even the expressions or poses of political figures in still images, against a presumed standard of objectivity and balance. Their “conclusion is not simply a result of the content analysis, but of observation of daily newsroom practice, interviews with editors and journalists, and reception analysis.”

Questionably, Herman, Chomsky, and the GUMG all allude to an absolute truth as a golden standard, which critics claim cannot possibly exist given the infinite facts and perspectives of any one event. Some critics have gone as far as to say that “all events, indeed the notion of an ‘event’ itself, are the product of an ideological framework which creates order out of an infinite number of possible observations or impressions.” Martin Harrison argues in TV News: Whose Bias? that the GUMG’s research is “tainted by the prior assumptions of the researchers and do not make allowance for the conditions under which journalists work.”

While it is true that objectivity is unattainable, the media should still aspire to that standard in assessing the credibility of the varied facts and perspectives in order to create a strong narrative. Critical theorists Stuart Hall and Douglas Kellner both hold that “there is no independent truth against which media representations can be judged… each interpretation is a product of a particular ideology.” Kellner writes of Gulf War media coverage with the mindset that infinite facts allow for infinite interpretations, but opts to judge media bias by how many possible interpretations are addressed. He acknowledges that some interpretations are championed by the majority, some by the minority, and some are so far from plausible they ought not be addressed, but advises media producers and consumers to evaluate the credibility of the source, rather than referring to some ideal of objectivity, as a guide for ethics and forming a narrative. He calls narratives with credible and varied sources “good stories”, taking a qualitative approach to media bias where Herman, Chomsky, and the GUMG attempt to quantify. In this way, he presumes, the minority will gain voice through the facts and opinions they contribute to a given story.

Kellner posits that his theory exists independent of some absolute truth or golden standard, and yet, he offers no measure for credibility other than subjective reasoning. It is for this reason that his theory falls short of answering the media bias dilemma. Perhaps his failure is the cost of a personal bias against the truth and fiction dichotomy foundational to the systemic ideology theory. Many critics appear so encapsulated by the impossibility of absolute truth that they fail to recognize its value, not as a reality but as a hypothetical ideal by which to measure credibility and assess that all perspectives are indeed represented fairly, albeit not equally. Of course, the ideal will vary from person to person, but relative to their personal biases, it is absolute. Thus, the ideal of neutrality necessitates inner reflection and identification of partisan personal values. Furthermore, this ideal must be characterized by infinite knowledge of all facts and perspectives, such that journalists aspiring to the absolute truth attain greater storytelling by exposing themselves to as much information as possible before synthesizing. This would ensure that, although all narratives are subjective, the assessment of sources and coalescence of ideas would reflect a journalistic culture characterized by genuine aspiration toward pure objectivity. In turn, consumers have a duty to assess the credibility of media from their best attempt at a neutral ideology, using the same principles of introspection, information gathering, and perspective variation. In summary, scientific methodology in media sourcing can mitigate the inevitable bias that occurs during synthesis.


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