Can we still teach about media bias in the post-truth age?

Bias – along with related ideas like objectivity, impartiality and balance – is a staple issue in public debates about media, and in media literacy education. Yet in the wake of the Brexit referendum campaign, the victory of Donald Trump, and the attacks on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, many have argued that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ era. In this context, is bias still a useful and meaningful concept in media literacy education? And if so, how should we teach it?

Two weeks ago, the BBC Trust – the body that regulates the UK’s national public service broadcaster – ruled that its chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, had breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines in her reporting of a story involving the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Given that the Trust is not exactly the most ferocious of media regulators, the ruling might have been rather surprising; although in light of Kuenssberg’s persistent misrepresentations of Corbyn’s views, it was by no means undeserved.

In my previous post, I wrote about the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, which has continued to gather headlines. On Monday, an official UK parliamentary enquiry was announced on the topic. Yet, as I argued, the focus on fake news rather leaves aside the question of ‘non-fake’ news – the news reporting provided by professional journalists. Clearly, it is not going to be possible – even for Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page – to eradicate ‘fake news’; but even if it were, it would be a mistake to believe that this would lead to a new era of reliable, trustworthy news reporting. Indeed, in some respects, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and claims about ‘alternative facts’ places an even greater responsibility on professional journalists.

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Famously, ‘post-truth’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. The editors defined it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. As this implies, the term post-truth represents a critical, even sarcastic, claim about the world, rather than a celebratory one. It describes a situation in which politicians in particular have not only made false promises or tried to manipulate public debate, but actually told outright lies, and managed to do so with impunity. While this is most apparent with Trump – as in his claims about climate change or voter fraud, or about Obama’s place of birth – there have been similar instances in the Brexit campaign, and in the challenges to Corbyn’s leadership.

One leading UK figure in this respect – and one of the first British politicians to meet with Trump after his election – is the former Education and Justice Secretary, Michael Gove. Gove was party to the false claim made during the Brexit campaign that Britain was paying £350 million a week to the EU, and that after Brexit this money would be diverted into the National Health Service. When challenged by leading economists, Gove claimed that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ – as though established sources of knowledge carried no weight against the superior wisdom of ‘the people’.

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It may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog if I admit that I voted for Jeremy Corbyn, and that I remain a (somewhat ambivalent) supporter. Yet in claiming that Corbyn has been subject to a campaign of biased media coverage from the outset – not just in the right-wing press, but also in more ‘liberal’ news outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC – I am not simply giving voice to my own bias. The BBC Trust ruling confirms what several people have been arguing for some time about the BBC’s coverage, and specifically about Laura Kuenssberg.

About six months ago, the London School of Economics published a detailed research report that substantiated such claims, at least as regards the newspapers. Of course, there are bound to be questions raised about such research. The researchers used content analysis to calculate the proportions of positive and negative stories. Yet what counts as positive or negative obviously depends upon the reader’s existing views; and enumerating negative comments does not in itself tell us anything about their overall meaning, let alone their effects.

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Counting instances of bias is also much easier in situations where there is a straightforward binary choice – are we for or against Corbyn, or Brexit? – but it is obviously much harder when it comes to more complex issues. Even such seemingly simple choices play out against a background of wider social and political issues: so how we understand Corbyn’s line on nuclear missiles, for example, calls into question how we understand Britain’s place and status in the world.

Even so, it is impossible to deny that newspapers like the Sun, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail have systematically ridiculed and vilified Corbyn. In some instances, this has involved manipulation and misrepresentation of a kind that definitely amounts to ‘fake news’: the story about Corbyn apparently ‘dancing a jig’ while on his way to a memorial service at the Cenotaph in London comes to mind. ‘Quality’ newspapers like the Telegraph or the Times may be less crude and blatant in their approach; but apparently neutral, factual reports in such papers are often designed to press particular readers’ buttons.

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As the media academic Robert Entman has argued, bias is ‘a curiously undertheorized staple of public discourse about the media’. Like ‘stereotype’, it is a commonsense concept that frequently recurs in everyday discussion. We might wish to replace it with something more academically ‘theorized’, or at least more precise; while some might argue that it is simply old-fashioned and irrelevant in a ‘post-truth’ era. Yet the idea is unlikely to disappear. Accusations of bias remain a persistent charge in debates about news media, and they have recurred throughout the debate about ‘fake news’. Ultimately, bias remains a useful umbrella term, although it is one that teachers and students need to work with and interrogate.

So what might we teach about media bias? Firstly, like other key concepts in media theory, we need to question and problematise the idea. Alongside bias, there is a cluster of terms that are frequently used interchangeably, such as objectivity, impartiality, fairness and balance. Yet while these terms may overlap, they do not mean exactly the same thing. Carefully separating these out, and looking at instances of each, would seem to be a necessary first step. There are several taxonomies of types of media bias that might be useful here – although again, they need to be used carefully and critically.

At the same time, we need to recognize the inevitability of bias. What we perceive as bias in the first place obviously depends upon our own biases – our own prejudices, assumptions or preconceptions. In the age of the ‘filter bubble’, there is a risk that this is becoming easier to ignore. We are increasingly able to select and customise our media environment in ways that are likely to confirm those biases. Encouraging students to reflect on their own media practices in this respect, and the sources of their own information and judgments, would help to illuminate the complexities at stake.

Secondly, we need to refine the idea of bias in order to apply it to a wider range of situations. Bias may be evident not just in overt commentary, but also (and perhaps more powerfully) in what a given report chooses to focus on and to ignore. It may be apparent in the connections that are made (explicitly or implicitly) across news stories, and in how key topics are defined in the first place. There is bound to be bias in how the news agenda is set – in what is seen to count as news in the first place – and in how particular topics are framed or defined – that is, what is included or excluded from consideration, or what is seen to be relevant or irrelevant. These two ideas – agenda-setting and framing – have generated considerable amounts of research. One could well argue that these less overt forms of bias are actually more influential, because they are harder for readers to notice, and hence to resist.

Thirdly, there is the issue of how we understand the institutional causes of bias. In some instances, bias may be a result of the direct interference of media owners or proprietors – most notoriously, of course, Rupert Murdoch. Yet this kind of institutional bias is often less direct: it is about the ‘culture’ of a news organisation, and how its staff are encouraged to behave. It may also reflect what the owners and the employees believe about the relationship between the institution and its audience. Journalists often argue that the bias of their own reporting simply reflects that of their readers. In this sense, there can be an economic motivation for bias: people will not pay to consume things that conflict with their own biases. Bias sells.

Institutional connections across and between media are also important here. Bias in one medium may well be reinforced by other media: even if specific positions vary, the overall agenda that is set is frequently shared, as news organizations compete with each other. However, it is important to beware of a monolithic view of media – epitomized by the blanket term ‘mainstream media’ (MSM). This term is becoming increasingly fashionable, not only on the political left (among supporters of Corbyn, for example), but also on the right: Donald Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon has apparently referred to the ’mainstream media’ as the new administration’s ‘opposition party’.

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This idea seems to rest on a very old-fashioned, conspiratorial account of the media simply brainwashing the masses. It assumes that ‘The Media’ are all the same; and it also implies that something preferable (the truth, perhaps) is only to be found outside the mainstream. Some on the Left – including some of Jeremy Corbyn’s media strategists – look to social media as a more effective vehicle for progressive ideas, ignoring the fact that the political Right (and not least Trump) have used such media with considerable success. Meanwhile, there’s a new irony as some are now looking to the same mainstream media to correct the excesses (fake news, hate speech) of social media.

I believe we can and should still teach about media bias. The changing political and media context – the so-called ‘post-truth’ age – makes this more complex and problematic, but it also makes it more necessary. However, it is important to avoid simply blaming the media, or overestimating their power. Aside from anything else, this can lead to a situation where the mediation of politics comes to be seen as more important than politics itself. In the process, the apparent lack of media appeal of particular politicians (such as Corbyn) is seen to define their electability – as if getting the packaging and presentation right is the fundamental issue. Ultimately, such arguments reinforce a generalized distrust and cynicism that is increasingly shared across the political spectrum. It’s not something I would regard as a good outcome for media literacy education.