From the Newswires

The Persistence of Journalistic Bias

Objectivity is the journalist’s catch-cry and crutch. We might presume that it’s simply a function of news writing, but perspective is everything with the written word. When a newspaper journalist mentions objectivity it’s either a shout in rage at the way things are when they should no longer be, or a whimper of shame when happenings prove bias to be inevitable. But is the reading public prepared to scrutinise, to decide when coverage might be other than what it claims?

By and large, we in the minority of the world’s population with access to the Internet still rely on the newswires to bring us the business, to tell us what’s been happening this minute, this hour, this day, this week. And who amongst us seriously asks “is this correct?” or “why is this so?” or how could that be?” Not many at all. We accept that reportage is an approximation of reality, that what might be near enough is probably good enough. And we read on, understanding the world in ways we don’t fully understand ourselves.

But think about the acceptance of approximation for a while. Not only does it mean that we’ll never know ‘what really happened’, but it also indicates that we’re not very concerned about bias, which is what occurs when objectivity no longer pertains. In a maybe-biased-maybe-not world, how do we discern the effects of propaganda, and the extent to which any part of the media colludes with government in presenting a picture of that which has never been? This is not a problem of our epoch alone, as any historian would admit, but it has become particularly un-nerving just now, when so much information can be had, but so few search through it diligently.

Allow me to offer a brief example from that most biased of journalistic pursuits – the coverage of war. Search the archive of the New York Times online and you’ll be able to find a wealth of military coverage, but one particular article is noteworthy for exposing the mechanics of how both sides in a war might twist and break their own credibility in reporting battles, if only we’d stop and think awhile.

Relaying a report from London, the New York Times shows how some American publications covering one war – I’ll discuss which later – have been making “their accounts of the present operations interesting, tactics which seem to be copied, indeed improved upon” by their counterparts on the enemy side. Here is the crux of the problem, whether in war or in peace. Most of what happens is not very interesting, and certainly not interesting enough to fill a daily newspaper. When happenings capture attention, they’re converted into Events and that attention is recycled every day until the next big happening comes along.

The report continues with the observation that most readers probably wouldn’t even be aware that the enemy has “either newspapers or war correspondents: but so it is”. Yes, Virginia, there really is another way of seeing things, and it matches the American penchant for exaggeration:

The rebels evidently have as much journalistic ability and enterprise as the Americans, for they make as much fuss over a trivial skirmish and shout “Victory!” just as loud when there is just as little to shout about.

American newspapers are equally anxious to portray the “field of glory”, especially in one recent case when only two men were slightly injured. “The other side says just the same”, the report continues, “it is always a fudge”.

There isn’t, and perhaps could never be, anything particularly objective about war. We should all know that, but we read the online news and only occasionally find reports like this. Too few of us ever ask if the news in general is even remotely accurate. The report cites other newspapers as claiming: “Enemy’s losses severe, but exact figures unobtainable because the dead were removed in order to prevent us knowing”.  We’ve all seen that sort of line; it offers what could pass for information without actually telling us anything. It implies that something happened, when on the balance of probabilities it did not.

So where is this war? The line about fatalities is almost timeless. It could be from Iraq, or Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s from the first Gulf War. Certainly the American military peddled it time and again during the Vietnam War. My point is that this sort of thing continues because too few people reject it, because too many people read passively. Perhaps you checked the link to the report that I gave above, but my guess is that most of you didn’t.

The dateline is June 6, 1899. The place is Manila. This is the first year of the Philippine-American War, until recently known as the ‘Philippine Insurrection’ in the United States. We still have so very much to learn about what we’re never told.


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