Can the news ever be a neutral ‘window on the world’? LYDIA JONES explores whether impartiality is a myth

The idea that news reporting can never truly be neutral may surprise some, while to others it’s as obvious as the sky being blue. The differing interpretations of news objectivity are found even within literature. For Wein (2005, p. 3) the sincerity of journalism is based on the assumption that it presents a true reality, while Conboy (2007, p. 20) is less passionate about the existence of such sincerity, stating that objectivity in journalism is merely “an institutional preference”.

But can journalists, no matter how careful they are to withhold their opinions, ever relay information in a neutral way? According to many writers on the topic, it’s simply impossible. Journalists can never be neutral, because every stage of news production and editing adds ideology to the story (Richardson, 2007, p. 86).

Personal beliefs are not the only factor that shapes the way an event is reported. Grazia Busà (2014, p. 33) explains that “[…] language, audience and technology” also have an impact. Language affects neutrality through the choices made by journalists, both in terms of lexis and grammar, which ultimately reflects their opinion (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 33). In order to ensure profits, the pressure on journalists to boost the audience means that stories are presented in a way that appeals to a target audience (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 34). This is done through editing, including aspects of story selection and how much detail of it is included and visual elements such as pictures: decisions which are based on the assumed target audience (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 34). Related to this is the influence of technology. Grazia Busà (2014, p. 36) claims that “[…] new stories may be selected on the basis of what videos or images are available, rather than on their intrinsic news value in the absence of such material”, which brings into question our (as readers) ability to find stories accessible. If news stories are selected on the ability to include multi-media, can we really say that they’re being chosen without bias?

Richardson (2007, p. 13) points out the link between the belief “[…] that language is ‘clear’ and acts as a neutral window on the world […]”, with the notion that journalism is strictly neutral, and purely fact based. McNair (1996, p. 33) also agrees with this, and argues that news is not a recording of events “[…] but a synthetic, value-laden account […]” that holds assumptions about the reality that it is produced in.

A useful and well-known example of where impartiality is held to a high standard is within the BBC. Sir Michael Lyons writes in The BBC’s editorial guidelines that “[t]he public expect the information they receive from the BBC to be authoritative […]” and that because of this expectation, the guidelines place an importance “[…] on standards of fairness, accuracy and impartiality” (BBC).

The BBC’s editorial values are: trust, truth and accuracy, impartiality, editorial integrity and independence, harm and offence, serving the public interest, fairness, privacy, children, and lastly, transparency and accountability (BBC). Most relevant to this discussion is the BBC’s commitment to impartiality, which they say is centred on an effort to “reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion” and be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts (BBC).

But are the BBC actually a neutral source of information? Even though the BBC holds itself to a high standard of impartial reporting, it has not stopped criticism from the public. Berry (2013) noted that the BBC’s coverage of EU membership between 2007 and 2012 was sparse of pro-EU voices due to “[…] Labour politicians being unwilling to make the positive case for Europe […]” because of Labour’s “perceived unpopularity”. Not only were there a lack of positive voices, but the portrayal of Europe was almost always constructed through problems within the Conservative and Labour Parties, resulting in little time for a well-rounded debate about the relationship between the UK and the EU (Berry, 2013).

Berry (2013) isn’t the only source of dispute to the BBC’s impartiality claims. Blogs dedicated to documenting any potential bias in BBC reporting also exist (see Biased BBC; BBC Watch). As Richardson (2007, p. 13) states, the assumption that journalism is always neutral and only conveys facts is dangerous and must be disputed. The existence of such blogs debating the impartiality of the BBC is an example of this debate in work. But as Fowler (1991, p. 11) highlights, the amount of education needed to create critical readers who are able to see through the shroud of the media bias, does not yet exist.

LYDIA JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Exposing the broadcasting bias of the BBC. Biased BBC.

BBC. Editorial guidelines.

Berry, M. (2013, August 23). Hard evidence: How biased is the BBC? New Statesmen,

 

Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

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

Grazia Busà, M. (2014). Introducing the language of the news: A student’s guide. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

McNair, B. (1996). News and journalism in the UK. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Monitoring BBC coverage of Israel for accuracy and impartiality. BBC Watch.

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

Wein, C. (2005). Defining objectivity within journalism: An overview. Nordicom Review, 26(2), pp. 3-15.

 

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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.

Is there any need for opinion pages when our news front pages are full of them? AMY MUDD investigates whether true objectivity is a myth

Picture this: it’s 24th June 2016, you’re in your local newsagents picking up the morning paper. You glance at the headlines: “After 43 years UK freed from shackles of EU”, wrote The Daily Mail. Thank goodness, you think. Shackles? See EU later. Independence and freedom, here we come. But on the next shelf, “Pound goes into freefall”… “Pound nose-dives, stocks plunge, bond yields fall”… Does that mean we’ve made the right decision? How are we supposed to know with such a mixture of positivity and negativity in the headlines? If only there was an objective newspaper that would give us the true facts and tell us, the public, if Brexit was the right decision…

But would that be beneficial in this situation? It could be argued that the variety of positivity and negativity within our headlines represents well-roundedness, and that overall this is neutral journalism, as we are being presented with every side of the debate, just from a range of sources. Some also argue that objectivity is a method of journalism, and as long as information is collected and sorted in a fair and accurate way, a news report is arguably objective.

On another note, who are we expecting to create such objective news reports? The Dictionary of Social Research Methods actually suggests that objectivity is “[t]he state of being free from individual biases, personal emotional involvement, or preconceived ideas” (2016). So surely true objectivity could only be achieved by someone with an empty mind: no thoughts, feelings or opinions on the topic in question… which is pretty unachievable when we remember that journalists are, in fact, human.

So, what is worse – a journalist that is honest with their opinions, allowing readers to acknowledge their biases within factual reporting and draw their own conclusions, or a journalist who hides their opinions whilst striving for ‘objectivity’, resulting in underlying, subconscious ideologies being hidden within their news reports, which are much more difficult for an untrained, unsuspecting reader to identify? As post-structuralists argue, “it is impossible to write from an unbiased stance” (Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery, 2013, p. 8), so there is no third option of ‘a completely objective journalist’ in this scenario.

This being said, have we let it go too far? Whilst absolute objectivity seems unrealistic, can it not till be strived for? We must ensure that the political views of journalists and newspaper organisations as a whole aren’t detrimental to their ability to report the news accurately and fairly. Just as an RE teacher that practises Christianity must also teach their students of Islam and Judaism, journalists must still present all sides of a debate, not just their own opinion, otherwise they risk their news reports being confused with opinion columns. There are already sections of each newspaper dedicated to opinions of journalists – they do not belong in the headlines.

Richardson argues that there is no objectivity in journalism, and disputes the metaphor of language being ‘clear’ and acting as a window on the world, stating that such assumptions “need to be contested because they can be quite dangerous” (Richardson, 2007, p. 13). Jones (2017) goes as far as to say that journalism is “a highly sophisticated and aggressive form of political campaigning and lobbying”. But how much truth is there in this statement? Surely that can’t be accurate, you may argue – don’t we have some sort of enforceable standards and checks in place to avoid such scenarios? Just as chocolate can’t state that it’s good for you, surely newspapers can’t lie… Well, here’s a scary fact. 71% of the national newspaper market is owned by three companies (Media Reform Coalition, 2015). Over 50% of National UK newspapers sold are controlled by two billionaires. So tell me, if one political party is offering lower tax for those companies, and another is offering equal tax for all, and these three companies have a circulation of approximately 33.6 million per year (Media Reform Coalition, 2015), could/would/should they manipulate their readership into voting in a way that is beneficial to them? As they say, ‘that’s how the rich stay rich’. But surely newspapers should have the public’s best interest at heart… They aren’t money-making businesses, are they?

Perhaps it isn’t objectivity that we need. Perhaps a more updated aspiration would be thorough, accurate, fair and transparent (Gillmor, 2005) news reporting. But will this ever be achieved whilst such a large proportion of our news outlets are controlled by so few individuals?

AMY MUDD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., & McEnery, T. (2013). Discourse analysis and media attitudes. Cambridge, United Kingdom: University Press.

Elliot, M., Fairweather, I., Olsen, W., & Pampaka, M. (2016). A Dictionary of Social Research Methods. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Gillmor, D. (2005). The End of Objectivity.

Jones, O. (2017, October 9). We can no longer pretend the British press is impartial. The Guardian

Media Reform Coalition (2015). Who owns the UK media? 1st ed.

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

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.

Can the news ever provide a neutral window on the world or does discourse act as a blind? ALICE GRIX has a peek through the curtains

Eckstrom (2002) defines ‘news’ as “reliable, neutral and current factual information that is important and valuable for citizens in democracy”. On the 24th February 2017, The Sun newspaper’s front page read “DYER SEXTED ME PIC OF HIS ENDER”, referencing Danny Dyer’s questionable choices, drawing attention to the question of whether or not ‘news’ is in fact important and valuable. Do you remember ‘#Hameron’ going viral? Yes, the pig and the ex-Prime Minister. The writer of that story, only hours after it hit our screens and papers, revealed she had no evidence to support the shocking story, definitely questioning news’ “reliable” and “factual” description.

A man featuring on many of our front pages and screens recently, is President Trump. A photo of him and the Mexican president took pride of place on the Wall Street Journal front page on 1st September 2016. Some copies featured the headline “Trump Softens His Tone” and others, “Trump Talks Tough on Wall”, two very different headlines on the same day, with the same photo (snopes.com, 2016). Misleading? Very. This occurred during his election campaign and had the ability to influence votes. It’s hard to say that this newspaper edition is a window on the world when one window is looking out onto sunny landscape, and the other is looking out onto a storm.

Reah (2002) says language is “perhaps most powerful when its role in presenting the world to an audience is not explicit” and further suggests it is “easy to resist a particular viewpoint or ideology when you know it is being presented to you” (p. 54). Scary, right? Baker et al (2008) found that in the British press between 1996-2005, newspapers commonly referred to refugees and asylum seekers using water metaphors such as a ‘flood’ or and ‘pouring’, both of which construct an idea of an undesirable, natural disaster. This is a dangerous ideology to present to the public, especially when we aren’t aware of its influence, and lacks the objectivity we expect from news discourse.

‘Post-truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017). The term suggests that society now prefers emotion over fact, and that is what gains popularity and reaches us. Its selection as word of the year last year is understandable given the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, and the turmoil that followed the campaigns. How could we forget the ‘LEAVE’ campaign’s big bus that suggested we send £350m each week to the NHS? Just hours after our decision to leave the EU was announced, Nigel Farage relinquished such ideas. This point, alongside the #Hameron fiasco and the Wall Street Journal’s alternating headlines, support the argument that the news we receive is not an effective window on the world.

A development that has arguably presented a window to the world is the news app. Amongst other news outlets, BBC news send notifications to our phones, and even Twitter, a social media platform, has followed suit. Facebook now allow us to filter our profile pictures with supportive images for world events, which is how I personally have discovered news. Neetzan Zimmerman said in 2014 (cited by Viner, K. 2016), that “[t]he only thing that really matters is whether people click on it… [f]acts are over… if a person is not sharing a news story, it is, at its core, not news”. Zimmerman proves that social media has become a news outlet in its own right. However, access to these sites, and in many cases, what can be said on them, is not restricted, which is why it can be questioned whether or not it is a true window on the world. In one respect, the speed at which news reaches may substantiate that view, however the content of that which we receive and the lack of restriction around it may provide a very different perspective.

Social media sites are increasingly aware of this fact, which has led Facebook in recent weeks to launch a guide on how to spot fake news. This won’t stop what is out there, but it may prevent untruths spreading so quickly as social media allows. Therefore, it may be believed that developments in technology are acting as a window on the world, however the view we see has often been selected by others as being news-worthy. Additionally, the supposed ‘factual’ newspapers present us with hidden ideologies and rumours they cannot prove are true. This doesn’t mean that everything we read or click on is false, but how sure are you that what you read is fact?

ALICE GRIX, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyżanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press. Discourse & Society19(3), 273-306.

Eckstrom, M. (2002). Epistomologies of TV journalism: a theoretical framework. Journalism, 3(3), 259-282.

Evon, D. (2016, September 2). Same Paper, Different Story. Snopes. 

Oxford Dictionaries. (2017) Oxford University Press. 

Reah, D. (2002). The language of newspapers. Abingdon: Routledge

Viner, K. (2016, July 12). How Technology Disrupted the Truth. The Guardian.