Can language ever be used objectively by the news media or is it just a manipulative tool? KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK investigates.

In a world full of political opposition and deceit from those with power, can the news ever be trusted to be objective? With every writer and journalist, perhaps unknowingly, inflicting their opinion on every article they write, objectivity seems unlikely.

Conboy (2007) states that the “concept of objectivity is… structured through particular language devices such as the esteem and reliability of resources” (p. 13). However, despite this intention, the vocabulary employed to narrate the story can itself be very selective in what it chooses to be important to the story and what it chooses not to be important (Conboy, 2007, p. 13).

For instance, the coverage of the death of the Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher –  a story that is seemingly very two-dimensional, as to put it bluntly, someone has died. Taking two UK national papers, let’s see how language can be used to foreground aspects of her life that the others don’t.

Starting with the Daily Mail (2016, 28 December), their opening headline is “DEATH OF A HOLLYWOOD PRINCESS”. The article does not state her name, nor her age, the cause of death or the place of death. Instead the use of the “Hollywood Princess” lays importance on her fictional status rather than who she really was. In contrast to this, The Guardian’s headline states “Carrie Fisher dies at 60: actor and acclaimed writer best known as Princess Leia”. This headline portrays the same message; however, it also highlights the importance of her age, her achievements and also her most renowned role in film. Thus, neither can be seen as objective as even the headline of a newspaper article can show such differences in the same story. As the papers have focused on different aspects of her life, it shows a clear difference in the values of the newspapers.

The news values by which the newspapers align often relate to the audience’s interests, and the audiences interest in the paper tend to be related to the papers political stance.  The Guardian, which has nearly 150,000 readers per day (Newsworks, 2018) identifies itself with liberalism, the average reader also aligns itself with centralist/left-leaning political views, and thus a middle-class audience. In contrast to this, The Daily Mail has well over a million readers per day (Newsworks, 2018) and holds strong right-wing views. Thus, as they have such contrasting audiences, the stories that they write and the way in which they write them is bound to be different.

Furthermore, as The Daily Mail article had a simple headline, referring to a “Hollywood”, where the rich and famous live, it shows that one of their main values, as by Bednarek & Caple (2012) is eliteness. In contrast to this, The Guardian states the age and achievements of Carrie Fisher, which could suggest a value of personalisation, wanting to show closeness to the deceased and aspects of her life.

Therefore, due to the papers having different political standings and both adopting different news values, can the news ever really be objective? A news platform that does pride itself on being neutral and un-biased is the BBC. Owned by the public, it states that “[i]mpartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences.” (BBC Editorial Guidelines, 2018). But Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery (2013) dispute this, arguing that it is in fact impossible to write completely objectively (p.8). Even the BBC could contain biases within its reporting, shown through the choice of stories that it prioritises, the opinions it foregrounds in a particular article, as well as the choice of wording in the headline (Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery, 2013, p. 8).

Despite objectivity coming a long way from the likes of the 18th & 19th century paper, who rarely disguised their political allegiance or their interests, objectivity within the news still has a long way to go (Conboy, 2007, p. 19). Richardson (2007) claims that the assumption that language is “neutral window to the world”, needs to be rejected, particularly within journalism as it can be dangerous (p. 13).

All in all, the likelihood of the news ever being neutral seems doubtful among linguists. The need for entertainment seems to be the basis for most of the leading newspapers in the UK. But is the fact that some individuals trust these platforms to be neutral and an objective source of news the most worrying part?

KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., & McEnery, T. (2013). Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes. The Representation of Islam in the British Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BBC Editorial Guidelines. BBC.

Bednarek, M. & Caple, H. (2012). News discourse. London & New York: Continuum.

Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. Abingdon: Routledge.

Market overview. (2018). Newsworks.

Richardson, J. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Palgrave Macmillan.

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3 thoughts on “Can language ever be used objectively by the news media or is it just a manipulative tool? KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK investigates.

  1. Sean Barton says:

    Hi Kirsty,

    Your introductory comments address the question immediately. I agree that journalists portray their own ideas and opinions within their work and may not be conscious of it.

    The examples outlined about Carrie Fisher’s death acts as a perfect companion to your aims of assessing whether language can be used objectively. The fact that the Daily Mail and the Guardian’s portrayal of Fisher’s death were different helps convey how one story can be represented in diverse ways.

    The inclusion of Bednarek and Caple’s (2012) news values framework aided your overall argument of how objectivity is hard to avoid within discourse, as newspapers, for example, will portray stories in alignment with their political agenda.

    Your ending question leaves food for thought, because of how readers of news will eat up whatever they read and still believe that it does not influence their decisions i.e. which political party to support.

    I believe that being objective is impossible and everyone’s beliefs and agendas have been influenced by someone or something at some point in their life. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about whether a news event could ever be represented without any type of bias apparent within it.

  2. Honor Wilson says:

    Hi Kirsty,

    Objectivity and the news is a particularly interesting topic and you have presented some very good points. I particularly like how you have used an example based on the same topic, but conveyed in both tabloid and broadsheet articles. It is clear from your example that the broadsheet appears to give a broader, more personal representation of Carrie Fisher in comparison to The Daily Mail which, as you said, discusses with reference to her fictional character. It is fascinating to see how different audiences can affect the linguistic techniques used to convey the writer’s opinion.

    I believe that it is worrying that there does not appear to be an objective and neutral source of news, as news outlets have major influence on the opinions of the reader.
    After reading this post, I fully agree with your point that it may be impossible to get a neutral opinion from newspapers, as each paper has their own political affiliation.
    Although the opinions of the paper may be conveyed subtly through linguistic techniques employed by the writer, the opinions and ideologies appear to be omnipresent. As you stated, opinions and ideologies vary from newspaper to newspaper. Do you think these opinions and ideologies are conveyed in specific genres of newspapers, more so than others?

  3. Jaye Ford says:

    Hello Kirsty,
    I’m glad to see an article about objectivity in the news, as I feel that the media has a very difficult time remaining completely impartial in their coverage of topics. The point you make specifically about newspapers “align[ing] often [to] relate to the audience’s interests” is one I think is very influential to the language that the newspaper will employ not only within the body of the article, but also crucially in the headline. The headline appears to be a very quick and easy way to dissect what is truly important in the eyes of both the journalist and the newspaper. You describe it in the example you chose as “eliteness” versus “personalisation”. These are likely the patterns of language that the publications have found draw in more of their individual readerships to access the article. At the end of the day, the intentions of the newspapers are to sell copies so I don’t believe it unrealistic to find that headlines in particular are edited in ways that degrade their objectivity in order to gain the interest of their intended audiences. It would really be interesting to see if both newspapers (Daily Mail and the Guardian) stick to the aforementioned “eliteness” versus “personalisation” approaches to their headlines and articles, or if they would change style according to the topic and the predicted opinions of their audiences.
    A further way to question the objectivity of the news would be to question how reliable the source is deemed. If a source is deemed unreliable, then would this mean that their information takes a more opinionated view? In 2017 Wikipedia decided to ban the Daily Mail as a reliable source due to “poor fact-checking, sensationalism, and flat-out fabrication” (HuffPost UK, 2017). I really believe that if a newspaper is deemed so unreliable, then the language must be particularly manipulative to maintain a readerbase as large as the Daily Mail has. What is your thoughts on reliability in relation to objectivity? I’d be interested to know if you find them related.

    Sources:
    Bowden, G. (2017, Feb). Daily Mail Banned As ‘Reliable Source’ On Wikipedia in Unprecedented Move. HuffPost UK.
    Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/daily-mail-banned-from-wikipedia_uk_589c3e13e4b07685621810f8?guccounter=1&guce_referrer_us=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvLnVrLw&guce_referrer_cs=PvHbFlhMrKEWW21w_Frl5A

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