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  • Purav Menon

Can The Press Be Politically Neutral?

Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from Purav's John Locke extended essay, and uses sections from his entry into the Butler Politics Prize

According to late twice-Pulitzer winning journalist Anthony Lewis in his 1997 essay “Democracy and a Free Press: Are They Incompatible?”, the historical idea of a free press rested on the assumption that the news would passionately represent opinions from all sides of the ideological spectrum, and that it was up to the reader to determine their own views from exposure to these viewpoints. Lewis states that it was the 20th century that saw a shift in thinking in Western journalism, as the idea of journalistic objectivity, i.e. reporting solely facts completely detached from opinion, came to “dominate the thinking of the press”. The movement towards objectivity in the press was largely influenced by the work of reporter Walter Lippmann, deriving from his idea of applying the scientific method to journalism. Attempts at non-partisanship thus became increasingly popular due to newspapers’ desires not to alienate any readers or potential advertisers and thus lose out on profits.

Neutrality, along with truthfulness, is one of the fundamental pillars of ‘journalistic objectivity’, referring to a requirement that the journalist side with none of the parties reported on, and simply present the facts of the matter as they are. This, according to J. Westerståhl’s Objectivity Concept, can be summarised by “truth, relevance, balance and neutral presentation”. Political neutrality, or at least attempts at it, can be seen in many forms in present-day media. Many Western news sources are noted for being quite unbiased and objective; two prominent examples of organisations that attempt to prioritise neutrality are Reuters and BBC News.

Neutrality in the media is supposedly achievable in theory. Yet many refute the assumption that any reporting can be politically neutral, instead choosing to believe that it is inherently a flawed concept to apply in practice; even these examples of organisations praised for objectivity have been criticised for perceived biases in their reporting. Criticisms of realistic journalistic objectivity include the suggestion that writing inadvertently takes a point of view despite attempts to be neutral, as choice of wording and stories reported on automatically imply an existing bias from the author; other arguments critique the detachment of emotion from stories, especially in war-related reporting, as well as attempts at unbiased reporting leading to false balance, itself a bias. This essay aims to judge the possibility of politically neutral news media existing by evaluating various arguments for and against it.

There are numerous schools of thought when defining the theoretical concept of objectivity in journalism. As previously mentioned, it was Lippmann’s application of the scientific method to journalism that helped to shape the industry’s perception of objectivity in the 20th century. The philosophical underpinnings of journalism are anchored by its use of ‘positivism’, defined as “recognising only that which can be scientifically verified, or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof”. Journalism seeking to present Lippmann’s style of journalism tends to adhere to this principle, due to its rejection of opinions without scientific reasoning. Professor Charlotte Wien argues this in her paper “Defining Objectivity within Journalism”, stating that to be objective is to “one is content to present that which is not affected by one’s own assessments”; the truth of a fact, something experienced directly that would not be perceived any differently by others, is indisputable, for example, the statement “Paris is the capital of France”. The positivist, scientific approach to journalism taken by many journalists and academics sees the existence of facts as distinguishable from opinions implying that neutrality can, and should, exist. As Danish journalist Nils Ufer once said, “Goddamnit, you must not tell people whether a fire is ‘terrible’ or not. Just report, damnit! People won’t give a shit about what you think. They want to know what has happened!”

It is necessary to answer the question – why should the media be politically neutral? The desire for news agencies to protect their profits was mentioned as a motive for the organisations themselves earlier, but does the reader want it? Polls indicate that they do, with a 2018 Pew Research Center survey of readers in 38 countries finding that most people (75%) believe it is never acceptable for a news organisation to favour one political party over others when reporting the news, while 20% believe it is only sometimes acceptable . This can be explained partially through an individualistic lens. The news holds a powerful grasp on its readers and is effective at telling its readers what to think; many readers, therefore, would rather formulate their own opinions themselves, and this is far easier to do so when readers are exposed to fact rather than opinion. This suggestion is further explained by the survey showing that rejection of partisan news media is more likely among educated people. Another suggestion is that people want to trust their sources of news, and it is far easier to do so when they are aware a narrative is not being pushed. The so-called “media bias chart”, created by Ad Fontes Media, has gone viral online, supposedly helping to guide readers towards the least biased and the least inaccurate agencies out there; many prominent Western news agencies do well on the chart, with the Associated Press and Reuters described as the most original fact reporting of them all.

Yet despite many news organisations faring well on political neutrality when compared amongst themselves, there is no single agency that lands at the very top of the chart. Indeed, even the agencies that are high up have received criticism for perceived biases and issues with neutrality. Reuters, guided by its self-proclaimed “Trust Principles”, prioritising “integrity, independence and freedom from bias”, has received criticism for bias on numerous occasions; examples of these, amongst others, include criticisms of use of doctored photographs when reporting on the Israel-Lebanon conflict, its false balance when reporting on climate change, and use of “objective” language to report on terrorism. Similarly, BBC News has faced a barrage of complaints throughout its history for supposed biases in various global issues, including Indophobia, anti-Catholic bias, and a lack of national representation across the UK. Why does this occur? Why do agencies with such strong importance placed on a lack of bias end up being criticised for it anyway? Perhaps the answer is that the news simply cannot be neutral, no matter how hard it tries.

There are many reasons why this could be the case. The first is ownership. Media bias has been regularly dictated by influence from the conglomerates who own the media, and this, according to Martin Gilens and Craig Hertzmann, increased rapidly between 1980 and 2000, and most likely has done so in the twenty years since then. In their essay “Corporate Ownership and News Bias: Newspaper Coverage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act”, Gilens and Hertzmann draw on the 1980 example of the Los Angeles Times choosing not to report on a $2 billion tax-funded water project that its owner, the Times-Mirror Company, would have benefitted from, a clear example of a news agency inadvertently pushing an agenda by choosing on what to report on. Elsewhere, Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the most famous media tycoon in the world, has been slammed for using his organisation News Corp in order to defend his business interests. More recently, the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post has been criticised for a seemingly pro-billionaire stance since his acquisition of the agency in 2013, something that was called out by U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2019. Yet while these examples may hold some truth, there is also evidence to suggest that ownership is not as important a factor in objectivity as it may seem. Rupert Murdoch’s influence on the press and thus on the world seems to be declining, especially in the UK, according to the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan. Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s pro-billionaire stance is more frequent in opinion editorials as opposed to a news article, and the newspaper has not been shy of criticising billionaires and Amazon (in fact, the Post refuted Mr. Sanders’ accusations over a lack of evidence) . Media ownership by conglomerates is an important factor in protecting interests but cannot fully explain most of the bias in the press.

An important reason that suggests the news can never be neutral is the idea of false balance, colloquially referred to as “bothsidesism”. This example of media bias exists when journalists, seeking to report solely facts and exclude their own opinions from a story, portray either side of an argument as equally significant and justified, and gives voice to those on both viewpoints. This can be a good thing; listening to just one side of a story means the reader or audience member does not gain the full picture of what has transpired in a certain event or the full facts on a certain issue – a similar practice to what occurs in law, when even the unequivocally guilty are given a right to a lawyer and a fair trial so that the judge may see their point of view. It therefore makes sense in theory that in the news, the reader plays the part of the judge, receiving inputs from those on all sides of a spectrum to formulate their own opinion.

However, the reality of false balance in the media makes this notion problematic. While portraying differing viewpoints is useful when both sides of the argument are accurate in their facts, recent years have seen journalists have increasingly applied this standard to scientific debates, such as those on climate change or vaccines. Journalists attempt to make discussion of these scientific debates as politically neutral as possible, especially in an era in which issues like vaccine deployment and fighting climate change are unquestionably political issues. However, applying false balance to these debates means that news agencies give a voice to scientifically dubious and incorrect viewpoints (for example, theories that climate change is natural, or that vaccines cause autism) to avoid bias. This in turn creates the illusion that these misinformed viewpoints are to be respected on the same level as those of accredited scientists. The press being extremely powerful in shaping citizens’ own opinions means that presenting both sides of arguments equally can be extremely damaging for readers and audiences and can result in a spread of misinformation. In an age where climate change and public health are two of humanity’s biggest priorities, inadvertently spreading misinformation is dangerous. False balance has similarly been criticised by many journalists in discussions about civil rights, where journalists are forced to portray neutral debates over their own existence. Thus, the practice of false balance is mostly perceived as harmful. Yet it seems like the only alternatives for journalists are either taking a side on scientific debates, or omitting the misinformed viewpoints entirely, both of which can result in their own accusations of bias.

More alarmingly, detachment of emotion from stories to maintain neutrality can potentially have extremely harmful effects to the human psychological condition. Scientific events aside, reporting on upsetting and undoubtedly evil events (e.g. genocides and wars) in a detached manner can lead to these evil practices being normalised, due to a long-term lack of emotional response that is built up in the reader. This phenomenon was noted in the 1890s, when major papers like the New York Times attempted reporting on African American lynchings through a detached lens, which may have had the effect of enabling and normalising the events, according to scholar David Mindich. The practice of emotional reporting, therefore, has increasingly become more accredited by war journalists in the past years; for example, BBC war reporter Martin Bell coined the term “journalism of attachment” in 1997 after the sheer horrors her witnessed in the Bosnian conflict led him to seek reporting that made distinctions between good and evil. CNN war correspondent Christine Amanpour echoed the sentiment issued by Bell, suggesting that "neutrality can mean you are an accomplice to all sorts of evil". The detachment of emotion from reporting, an example of false balance, has been particularly criticised with regards to the Armenian genocide, where Turkey’s geopolitical position has meant that news agencies seek to portray both sides of the argument, thus cheapening the horrors experienced by the Armenian people. But again, the alternative would be taking a side in the argument; and this, of course, would be that the news media would not be politically neutral.

Additionally, it is not always about the content of a story that shapes its political neutrality status. One of the largest criticisms of BBC News from within the UK is for its so-called “London-centric” reporting, in which it prioritises stories about London to be reported and sent to the front page or to make the headlines. This does not necessarily entail the BBC portraying London as good or bad in these articles, but the criticism is enough to show that simply reporting a certain amount on London in the first place is enough to generate allegations of bias. Indeed, any news agency portrays an implicit amount of political bias by reporting one story over another. This, unfortunately, is inevitable; it is physically impossible for news agencies to prioritise every single story from around the world – choosing what to report on is a decision they all must make. This therefore seems to imply that a level of bias in the news is natural and cannot be avoided.

There have thus been numerous reasons for why achieving true neutrality in the press is difficult in practice. But perhaps the most important reason for political neutrality never having been achieved is simply that journalists are humans. Every different story from different news organisations or authors reporting the same event will differ in its wording, its phrasing, and its tone. It is the intricacies of the language employed by the author of a story that help to shape its specific stance, regardless of attempts to be neutral. It is nuanced perceptions of an event from each author that help differentiate between style. And, therefore, it must be impossible in practice that there can ever be a form of news media that is politically neutral, as every single intricacy in the language shaping a news story, or every single intonation of a news broadcast, will differ depending on the author or the broadcaster. This concept has been used to refute the positivist outlook on journalistic objectivity: Professor Wien maintains that “the journalist must undertake a choice of context in which to place the facts”, suggesting that even a presentation of facts supposedly untouched by subjectivity is inevitably done so anyway; similarly, writer Torsten Thurén has suggested that “it is… difficult to distinguish between opinions and descriptions of reality” . Events reported by one journalist will automatically contain a certain level of bias unique to that specific journalist, and that is impossible to avoid. A completely non-neutral account would have to mean reporting on every single aspect of an event or issue, which, in practice, is impossible. Therefore, despite impressive attempts at it, news media can never be truly politically neutral.

This seems very pessimistic and a rather depressing outlook on the media and on people’s trust in it, i.e., that despite over 75% of people in 38 countries believing that news outlets should never be biased, it is not possible at all. But perhaps true political neutrality was never a reasonable goal for agencies to achieve in the first place. If the press seeks to educate its audiences to arrive at their own opinions in the most informed and objective manner, they should attempt the next best thing after neutrality, which is fairness and accuracy. These values are enshrined by the media critique non-profit “Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting”, set up in 1986 to advocate for more diversity of perspective in journalism. This entails, at a base level, a certain level of self-awareness from reporters on their own biases. But on a wider level, it would mean a return to the pre-20th century style of opinionated journalism, with the added expectation that the side taken is accurate (to eliminate those who preach misinformation), and additionally allows the other side to respond. A move towards this kind of journalism would be helpful, especially in a society where readers can often struggle to distinguish between fact and opinion in the news. Now, it seems that people still value political impartiality in the press. Perhaps, decades from now, when journalism is conducted by robots in a strictly objective, empathy-less, sterile manner, news agencies will finally achieve what can be described as “neutrality”. But for the near future, it seems that fairness and truth is a more achievable goal.

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