Extra! Extra!If the BBC can’t broadcast an objective view of UK local election results, can news discourse ever be objective? ELISHA LANGLEY looks at all the angles.

When you think of an objective news report, you’d be right to assume that there are many news outlets such as the BBC that would come across as such. But in reality, is the BBC as unbiased as it seems? A debate in the world of linguistics is whether news discourse can in actuality be free from ideology, and as Kuhn (2007:25) argues that “media coverage can give a story an angle or spin that directs the audience to a certain interpretation of events” whether we, as media consumers, can see through these biases is another story. Are we forever going to be subjected to biases in our news media, or will we even notice it to begin with?

Frost (2016:77) defines objectivity as such, “[t]hat which is objective cannot and should not contain that which is subjective”, meaning that to stay true to objectivity the journalist needs to put aside all notions of their own opinion and present the reader/viewer with the ‘facts’. However, when considering our own subjectivity, it is hard to remove it from our own reading “since we are all subjective individuals” (Kovach: 2001), making it virtually impossible to separate opinionated discourse. For example, the local elections of May 2018 is such an event where discourse was used to present an opinion hidden behind seemingly ‘objective’ discourse, as the BBC reported the wins and losses for all parties, but particularly focussed on Labour’s progress compared to the Conservatives. Tom Watson (MP for West Bromwich) said that “his party had consolidated the progress it made in last year’s general election” (Burns: 2018) which seems positive at first. Labour had consolidated their progress in their campaigning yet as Patrick Burns (2018) goes onto explain, “this is a time in the electoral cycle when parties in opposition at Westminster need to do more than consolidating. And not losing their majorities in marginal places like Redditch and Nuneaton.” Despite the seemingly positive coverage presented by highlighting Labour’s success straight from the party, the BBC undermines this and presents it in a negative fashion by alluding to their losses and highlighting Conservative successes later on in the piece. Despite the number of councillors gained by Labour being almost double that of the Conservative losses, it was reported as “[n]o clear winner as Labour and Tories [are] neck and neck’ (BBC: 2018). I’d hardly call that objective reporting, would you?

As media consumers, we expect to be presented with a clear and objective standpoint on the news since we place an immense level of trust in the broadcaster or newspaper to deliver the news to us in this manner. Yet, what we often see in news discourse is that it is often hard to remain objective despite all attempts to do so. Even the BBC have resorted in their guidelines to use the term ‘impartiality’ rather than ‘objectivity’. In fact, the BBC use the term ‘objectivity’ a total of 11 times, when comparing this to ‘impartiality’ since this is used 143 times throughout the guidelines. The BBC will always “apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole” (BBC Guidelines: 2018). So objectivity is arguably an ideal rather than a reality within the world of journalism. However the BBC do try and maintain some sort of ‘impartiality’ through their reporting since their “decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests” (BBC Guidelines: 2018) so naturally we would expect the BBC to maintain a façade of objectivity.

However, is it fair to say that it is purely the broadcaster/newspaper encouraging a certain perspective? Kuhn (2001) stresses the importance of our own subjectivity as a media consumer. For example, when considering music coverage, one person may derive a particular meaning over another because this is the perspective that they chose to see. ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino is one such piece that is divisive in relation to how we perceive the music alongside the news coverage that has been increasingly been given due to its themes. The song itself covers a wide spectrum of issues such as Jim Crow, racism, gun violence and biblical allusions but we only see these things because we choose to view them in such a way. News discourse functions in a similar fashion – we choose the perspective we view whether the journalist intended this to be the case or not. Fowler (1991: 11) claimed that “the individual has to read carefully and comparatively in order to […] see through to the truth”.  News discourse bias is inescapable –  it hides in places where we do not expect, unless you have the keen eye to spot them.

ELISHA LANGLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

BBC. (2018). BBC Editorial Guidelines.

BBC. (2018, May 8) Childish Gambino unveils startling new video and performance of This is America.  BBC. 

BBC (2018, May 5) Local election results 2018: No clear winner as Labour and Tories neck and neck. BBC.

Burns, P. (2018, May 5). Reflections on our local elections. BBC.

Fowler, R. (1991). Language in the news: Discourse and ideology in the press. London: Routledge.

Frost, C. (2016). Journalism Ethics and Regulation (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge.

Kuhn, R. (2007). Politics and the Media in Britain. (1st ed.). Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Melas, C. (2018, May 7) Childish Gambino’s poignant ‘This Is America’ lyrics. CNN.

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One thought on “Extra! Extra!If the BBC can’t broadcast an objective view of UK local election results, can news discourse ever be objective? ELISHA LANGLEY looks at all the angles.

  1. Kimberley Doyle says:

    Hi Elisha,

    You present a very interesting argument that both journalists and consumers have great difficulty conforming to the widely-accepted notions of “objectivity” and “impartiality”. In fact, satirical news perhaps waves a red flag and signals how the same news story can be in some way modified to occupy a very different purpose. You may find US series, The Daily Show to be an insightful and entertaining source for which to learn more about the genre of satirical news. Following your discussion of the misrepresentation of the local elections, I re-familiarised myself with the connotations presented by The Sun’s headline regarding Meghan Markle’s family. The Markles were the centre of attention on 28th November 2017 when the paper’s headline was “MEET THE IN-LAWS The VERY un-royal Markle family now set to liven up Windsor family Christmases”. In this instance, “un-royal” is a single adjective that functions as a hallway, leading to an unimaginable number of rooms where each decorates the news event in a slightly different way. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you my interpretation of this headline and it’s not good news for the Markles. What do you think? We may give The Sun the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they are playing a game of “fill in the gap” where we may choose our own meaning of “un-royal”. Is un-royalty American? An actress? Only the journalist knows since we all possess different ways of interpreting news as subjective consumers (Kuhn, 2001). I entirely agree that “objectivity” may be better described as an “ideal” rather than a reality. Although, The Corbett Report (2013) considers the idea of even having an “ideal” to be far-fetched. I personally wonder where the truth lies between objectivity, impartiality and all the other shades of grey. Even if we remain “neutral”, we’re still taking a side… Right?

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