Conceptions of Bias and the Glasgow University Media Group: Bad News.
WHAT IS BIAS?
PEOPLE SEEM TOSPEAK OF IT AS IF IT IS A CORRUPTING FORCE
IT SHOULD AND INDEED COULD BE REMOVED FROM THE MEDIA
BUT CAN IT BE GOT RID OF?
I WANT TO ARGUE THAT BIAS IS AN INESCAPABLE ASPECT OF ALL HANDLING OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION.
WE SHOULD NOT BE ASKING:
WHY ARE THE MEDIA SO BIASED?
BUT RATHER BE ASKING:
IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE UNBIASED?
WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE FOR THE MEDIA TO BE UNBIASED?
WHAT WOULD CONSTITUTE UNBIASED MEDIA?
WHAT WOULD IT BE TO BE UNBIASED?
LETS OFFER A CANDIDATE ASNWER:
UNBIASED - IS TO BE OBJECTIVE
BUT WHAT IS IT TO BE OBJECTIVE?
OBJECTIVE: TO STATE ALL THE FACTS
DO YOU REALLY MEAN ALL THE FACTS???
LEAVING NONE OUT?
WHAT ARE ALL THE FACTS?
PROBLEM: HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT YOU HAVE GIVEN ALL THE FACTS?
CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW LONG GIVING ALL THE FACTS COULD TAKE?
OK…PERHAPS NOT ALL THE FACTS
SO LET US RETREAT TO A SECOND POSSIBLE REPONSE: UNBIAS IS STATING ALL THE RELEVANT FACTS
BUT SAME PROB… HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT ARE ALL THE RELEVANT FACTS?
RELEVANCE CHANGES WITH TIME
WHEN WE SAY ANYTHING WE ARE BIASED
THAT IS: WE IN SOME SENSE CHOOSE TO SAY THIS RATHER THAN ANY OTHER POSSIBLE THING...I HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE - I CANNOT SAY LITERALLY EVERYTHING AT ONCE
IN THIS RATHER ABSTRACT SENSE WE ARE INEVITABLY SELECTIVE
AND IF WE CANNOT HELP BEING SELECTIVE, WE CANNOT HELP BEING BIASED
BECAUSE WE ARE PICKING OUT THIS RATHER THAN THAT.
PERHAPS WE SHOULD BE MORE MODEST IN OUR ATEMPTS TO GET A HANDLE ON THE CONCEPT OF BIAS.
WHAT ABOUT SUGGESTING THAT THE PROBLEM OF BIAS LIES MORE IN THE WAY THAT THE MEDIA REFER TO THINGS.
THEY ALWAYS POINT THE FINGER AND BLAME PEOPLE INSTEAD OF WELL… REPORTING MORE OBJECTIVELY.
ITS NOT THE KIND OF STORIES THAT ARE SELECTED, IT’S THE WAY THEY ARE WRITTEN, ESPECIALLY BY THE TABLOIDS.
ASK YOURSELF WHICH IS MORE BIASED/OBJECTIVE:
‘JOHN HIT THE BALL’ (ACTIVE FORM)
BIAS = BLAMING JOHN
‘THE BALL WAS HIT BY JOHN’ (PASSIVE FORM)
BIAS = AVOID BLAMING JOHN
DISCOURSE ANALYSIS CAN HELP US HERE TO ANALYSE THE IMPACT OF THE SENTENCES
BOTH HAVE SAME MEANING BUT DIFFERENT FORCE OR IMPACT
INTUITIVELY WE MAY WANT TO SAY THE SECOND IS LESS BIASED THAN THE FIRST BUT USING D.A. WE CAN SHOW THAT THEY ARE EQUALLY BIASED (but in different directions)
SO WE HAVE STILL NO GRIP ON HOW TO AVOID BIAS
Well what about the other thing people tend to say about the media and bias…that it show bias by using extreme language. The media should always use moderate language.
In time of war when propaganda is necessary?
All right, not that then.
What about the statement: ‘Hitler was not very kind to the Jews’
Is this acceptable? It’s modest, low key! It has that ‘being reasonable’ hallmark of the more objective type of statement.
CLEARLY THIS WILL NOT DO.
IT IS BEGINNING TO LOOK AS IF WE ARE BEING UNREASONABLE
IF WE BELIEVE THAT WE CAN GET ANYWHERE NEAR
WE HAVE TO BE SELECTIVE
THE NATURE OF LANGUAGE DOES NOT PERMIT UN-BIAS
WE DO NOT HAVE AVAILABLE TO US A ‘PERFECT LANGUAGE’
THAT IS: A LANGUAGE THAT EXPRESSES PERFECTLY AND WHOLLY OBJECTIVELY, PARTICULAR THINGS AND STATES OF AFFAIRS.
LET US LOOK AT ANOTHER POPULAR INTUITION ABOUT THE BIASED MEDIA:
‘…THAT PAPER IS JUST SO BIASED…’
WHAT DO THEY MEAN BY ‘THAT PAPER’
ALL OF IT?
INCLUDING THE GARDENING COLUMN?
OR DO THEY JUST MEAN THE LEADER COLUMN OR THE EDITORIAL? AND PERHAPS THE POLITICS AND SOCIAL AFFAIRS STUFF.
SO PERHAPS THE PAPER IS NOT BIASED AS A WHOLE BUT RATHER - ONLY A SMALL PORTION OF IT IS.
BUT IF WE START TO MOVE AWAY FROM THEORY TOWARDS THRE MORE PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF BIAS…
WE HAVE SEEN THAT THE HISTORY OF THE PRESS IS A HISTORY OF THE PRESS BEING FORCED WITHER BY GOVERNMENT, THEIR SPONSORS, OR THEIR OWNERS, INTO BEING POLITICALLY BIASED IN SOME DIRECTION OF ANOTHER
AND THIS CAN BE A FUNCTION OF WHAT THEY DON’T SAY AS MUCH AS WHAT THEY SAY.
SO PRACTICALLY SPEAKING WE MIGHT HAVE A WORKING DEFINITION OF BIAS AS:
THE POLITICAL AND IDEOLOGICAL ORIENTATION OF A MEDIA PRODUCT – THEIR GUIDING SOCIAL AND POLITICAL VALUES
For instanced the Daily Telegraph is well known for its affiliations to Conservative values and The Guardian is known for its leftish/liberal values.
BUT AS SUGGESTED EARLIER THIS LARGELY ONLY SHOWS UP IN CERTAIN KINDS OF STORIES.
IT IS SAID THAT A NEW JOURNALIST ON THE DAILY MAIL HAVING WRITTEN A STORY SYMPATHETIC TO TRAVELLERS WAS MOST UPSET WHEN THE STORY WAS SPIKED BY THE SUB-EDITOR (the sub-ed indicating that the boy was a fool)
IN PRACTICAL TERMS A CONTENT ANALYSIS CAN HELP TO ANALYSE SOCIAL AND POLITICALLY BIASED ARTICLES.
C.A. IS A QUANTITATIVE METHOD THAT COUNTS THE NUMBER OF PHRASES, WORD UNITS, IMAGE UNITS ETC OCCURRING IN A PAPER, ARTICLE, SEVERAL PAGES…
WHERE THESE DEFINED UNITS MATCH ONTO A PRE-DETERMINED FRAME OF ANALYSIS eg. A PRE-ESTABLISHED LIST OF BIASED WORDS, PHRASES AND SO FORTH.
THE USE OF CONENT ANALYSIS WAS A METHOD OF ANALYSIS USED BY THE CELEBRATED
NOTABLE NAMES FROM THIS GROUP WERE:
Prof. John Eldridge
Their most famous and important work
Which had genuine impact on the BBC and other media organisations was:
BAD NEWS (volume 1) 1976.
Note: there have been many other GUMG publications but none so influential as this first piece of work
Which was primarily
A study of BIAS in the media
Especially in regard of Industrial reporting on television news.
The book was researched in the early to mid-70s when there was an enormous amount of strikes and industrial trouble, so TV did a lot of coverage of this stuff in the news.
Bad news started from the intuition that BBC news reporting was regarded by many people including the BBC as striving to be and mostly succeeding in being objective, relatively unbiased and neutral.
GUMG analyses showed that TV news was SYSTEMATICALLY BIASED
“This study attempts to unpack the coding of television news. It aims to reveal the structures of the cultural framework which underpins the production of apparently neutral news….”
“….the news is not a neutral product. For Television news is a cultural artefact: it is a sequence of socially manufactured messages, which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society. From the accents of the newscasters to the vocabulary of camera angles; from who gets on and what questions they are asked, via selection of stories to presentations of bulletins, the news is a highly mediated product.”
Techniques of production
Selection of stories
Modes of presentation
Encoding of the verbal messages
All according to GUMG conspire to construct the news into a biased product.
This of course is BAD NEWS when we want to believe that the BBC news is neutral and biased.
Not surprisingly GUMG findings greatly offended the BBC news teams.
GUMG further argued that
there was an insider culture within news production which obliged conformity to the house style and practices
so that alternative more critical ways of making news were difficult to introduce.
Coming from a left political position the GUMG were especially critical of what they saw as unfair reporting of trade union views.
PHILIP SCHLESINGER in his book ‘PUTTING REALITY TOGETHER’
Argued against the GUMG findings.
DRAWING ON ETHNOGRAPHIC METHODS (ANALYSING SOCIAL PROCESSES FROM THE POINT OF THE VIEW OF THE PEOPLE INVOLVED – WHAT IT MEANT FOR THEM - RATHER THAN THE SOCIOLOGIST LOOKING AT BEHAVIOURS TO WHICH ARE ATTACHED PRE-ESTABLISHED MEANINGS)
HE ARGUED THAT THE ROUTINES AND FORMATS OF NEWS PRODUCTION WERE NOT SO MUCH ABOUT THE CREATION OF A ‘BIASED’ NEWS AS
THE CREATION OF AN UNDERSTANDABLE NEWS WHICH WOULD STILL GIVE AN AUTHORITATIVE ANALYSIS
NOTABLY HE TAKES ON THE GUMG OVER THE T.U. COVERAGE
SCHLESINGER ARGUES THAT THE COMPLICATED PRESENTATIONS THAT THE UNIONS TENDED TO GO IN FOR RESULTED IN QUITE VICIOUS EDITING BY THE BBC
SO AS TO MAKE THE UNION POIINT OF VIEW UNDERSTANDABLE
TV NEWS IS ALWAYS UNDER PRESSURE OF TIME SO CANNOT ALLOW INTERVIEWEES TO SIMPLY RABBIT ON AT WILL WITHOUT EDITS
GUMG HAD COMLAINED THAT THE UNIONS DID NOT GET THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY OUT
SCHELSINGER POINTS OUT THAT THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY WAS OFTEN MOST UNCLEAR AS MANY OF THE UNOIN REPR WHO FACED THE CAMERAS WERE VERY INEXPERIENCED COMPARED WITH THE MANAGEMENT SIDE WHO HIRED PRESS OFFICERS.
SO ‘BIASED’ REPORTING IS FOR SCHELSINGER MORE A MATTER OF MAKING CLEAR UNAMBIGUOUS STORIES FOR THE VIEWER
IF IT SIMPLIFIES THE REALITY, IT’S A PITY BUT THE NEWS MAKERS ARE FACING THE CONSTRAINTS OF THE MEDIUM AND NOT ENDORSING AN INTENDED BIAS.