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