As professional journos continue to fetishize a non-existent “objectivity”, the greatest and most urgent truths of our time are vehemently hidden and denied.
Produced by the Media Lens (U.K.) team • Originally a simulpost with our sister site Cyrano’s Journal, 19 October 2006. • Reprinted because the circumstances that prompted the production of this article, far from disappearing, have only gotten worse.
THE ELUSIVE OBJECTIVITY
Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the public radio and television network, is introducing new policies aimed at a more rigorous imposition of impartiality on the content of all ABC programmes. But what does this mean in practice?
It’s always easier to see the bias of others than to recognise one’s own. A story that supports the status quo is generally considered to be neutral and is not questioned in terms of its objectivity while one that challenges the status quo tends to be perceived as having a “point of view” and therefore biased.
Statements and assumptions that support the existing power structure are regarded as ‘facts’ whilst those that are critical of it tend to be rejected as ‘opinions’.
The officious policing of impartiality and balance will mean ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment (government or business) are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.
Too much emphasis on objectivity in news and current affairs can lead journalists to leave out interpretations and analysis, which might be construed as personal views, and to play it safe by reporting events without explaining their meaning and keeping stories light and superficial so as not to offend anyone. Journalists who accurately report what their sources say, can effectively remove responsibility for their stories onto the people they interview and quote.
The ideal of objectivity therefore encourages uncritical reporting of official statements and those of authority figures. In this way the individual biases of individual journalists are avoided but institutional biases are reinforced. The enforcement of impartiality tends to give powerful industry spokespeople guaranteed access to the media, no matter how flimsy their argument or how transparently self-interested. No such access is guaranteed to critics.
When a powerful company is criticised for endangering human lives or the environment it is only fair to give it the opportunity to answer the criticisms but does balance and impartiality require that it be given equal time? Are individual criminals given equal time to answer allegations against them? In their attempts to be balanced on a scientific story, journalists may use any opposing view even when it has little scientific credibility in the wider scientific community.
This can be very misleading. In the case of global warming, the fossil fuel industry has taken advantage of this convention by funding a handful of dissidents and demanding that they are given equal media coverage despite their poor standing in the scientific community. This strategy of exaggerating the uncertainties and confusing the public has ensured that governments like the Howard government have been able to avoid doing anything to prevent global warming, despite the overwhelming evidence that significant global warming is likely without government intervention. It is only recently, after many precious years have been lost, that the most intransigent governments have been forced to admit that action must be taken to avoid global warming.
Some ask why this has not occurred earlier. Clearly part of the problem has been the ability of vested interests to manipulate the media by holding up the rod of balance and impartiality. It is notable that the new ABC policy was announced at a meeting of the Sydney Institute, a corporate-funded right wing think tank, which has been one of the ABC’s strongest critics on the grounds of bias.
Here is a case where bias really is in the eye of the beholder. The Sydney Institute is a breakaway group from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), headed by Gerard Henderson, formerly director of IPA NSW and chief of staff for John Howard (now prime minister). The IPA also claims the ABC is biased. Aaran Oakley attacked ABC journalists in the IPA Review for making “the assumption that global warming is real, some even making assertions to that end.” On this basis he has concluded that ABC reporting “represents a pernicious mixture of science and environmentalism.”
This accusation of bias was despite the fact that ABC gave air time to IPA Senior Fellow, Brian Tucker, who stated on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor that “unchallenged climatic disaster hyperbole has induced something akin to a panic reaction from policy makers, both national and international” and argued that global warming predictions are politically and emotionally generated. By caving in to ideologically-motivated attacks on the ABC, the new guidelines are more likely to damage impartiality than enforce it.
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