Sunday, April 13, 2008

About media bias

Yesterday, I wrote about the New Zealand Herald using its website to promote its pet crusade against the Electoral Finance Act. I mentioned how this is part of an anti-Labour pattern at the Herald. What may be surprising is that I actually don’t have a problem with that; it’s the Herald’s dishonesty that’s so wrong.

In a perfect world, all news media would be fair, balanced and unbiased in reporting simple verifiable facts. There are still plenty of editors who believe in the concept of “unbiased” reporting. I’ve always thought that was a nonsense: Human beings all carry biases and prejudices so it is, in my view, impossible for any journalist to produce truly unbiased reporting, particularly when not all facts are either simple or easily verified.

In most news environments, the challenge for journalists is to recognise their biases and work to make sure that their reporting is as fair and balanced as they can make it. Often they succeed. When they can’t, or feel they may not have fully succeeded, they have an obligation to share their biases with news consumers who then have the information they need to determine if the reporting is valid.

When business writers report on a company, journalistic ethics compel them to reveal if they hold shares in the company or its competitors. If a features writer gets a free air ticket to write a tourism story, they must reveal that fact. But for some reason, writers are free to write about politics without being clear about their own affiliations.

For most news organisations, this isn’t necessarily a problem. The Herald, however, often uses its news pages to promote partisan views, as I point out from time to time. Sometimes, it’s “news” writers offer blatant partisan commentary in news stories (Bernard Orsman is particularly bad about putting his own partisan comments into what are supposed to be news stories).

If the Herald can’t present the news in a fair and balanced way, then they have an obligation to be upfront with news consumers about the biases of their contributors. Trouble is, if they actually did that, the credibility of the paper would be shot.

So maybe there could be a compromise, and the Herald could introduce a little balance into their reporting. For example, they could report on the rightwing and far rightwing allegiances of the people championing their pet crusade. They could avoid unsupported cheap shots at Labour, the Labour-led government or any local government. They could also forbid Bernard Orsman from including his own partisan comments in news stories.

Biases are human. Openly revealed, they don’t form the debate, but actually add to it. The New Zealand Herald, however, is using its bias to slant the news, often subtly, and that’s never acceptable.

The author is a member of the New Zealand Labour Party and has worked in the graphics/production side of the printing and publishing industries, including newspaper production, for more than twenty years. There: See how easy that is

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