Newspapers are often criticised for being partisan, particularly when editors take a stance on political issues they consider to be of importance to readers.
This is nothing new, in Australia or elsewhere in the world. Newspapers, since the early days of The Times of London in the late 18th century, have been strident in putting forward their position on world events.
Yet in Australia there is a continual flow of accusations that objectivity has given way to subjectivity on issues ranging from asylum seekers to economic management, environment and mining policy.
As a result, editors and publishers are perpetually fighting off accusations of bias, amid demands for more objectivity.
But while objectivity may be a noble ideal, is it unrealistic or – in itself – an unfair ask?
In a competitive market objectivity can equate to blandness – a condition that can become terminal in modern publishing.
This has exacerbated a trend for bolder print presentation to maximise casual sales. The downside to this is the bolder the statement, the more likely critics will claim bias.
Alain de Botton, the UK-based author and philosopher said in an interview with The Weekend Australian ahead of a tour to promote his book, The News: A User’s Manual, this is not a bad thing.
Media outlets should not be afraid to advocate their views.
“Bias is a good thing and unfairly maligned,’’ de Botton said. “Facts can only become meaningful and relevant to us when they slot into some picture of what is important or trivial, right or wrong, hopeful or worrying, good or bad.
“Think of the figures we most revere in history: Plato, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, the Buddha, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. Each of them had a strong sense of what mattered and why, and their judgments were anything but perfectly balanced. They were just biased in fruitful ways.”
Many who are in the firing line for perceived bias agree with de Botton.
The Newspaper Works went to six commentators for their views: Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine (News Corp Australia), Nick Cater (The Australian), Jenna Price (Fairfax Media) Richard Ackland (The Sydney Morning Herald and former Media Watch host) and Margaret Simons (author and media commentator).
A common thread was that bold can be beautiful, bias is not necessarily a bad thing, and fairness, more than objectivity, is becoming the overriding factor – but bias, like beauty, still lies very much in the eye of the beholder.
Below are their responses to nine questions put to the commentators on the issue.
Overseas papers, particularly in London, are renowned for taking a strong stance on issues. Yet in Australia, newspapers are accused of not being objective, or worse, of bias – particularly if the story is of a political nature and stridently presented. Is this a fair criticism?
Ackland: Yes, it is a fair criticism. Some papers are obviously biased and strident. They feel this caters or panders to a market segment that wants its information slanted.
Bolt: Is that a criticism? We all have biases. Frauds pretend they don’t. The relevant question is: are you fair?
Cater: A good paper does campaign on issues that are in the shared interests of its readers. The Daily Telegraph’s current campaign promoting Western Sydney is a case in point. The difference between here and the UK is the size of the market. It is easier for UK papers to take a blatantly partisan stance, since there are more of them.
In Australia, however, editors are conscious that readers are likely to vote across the spectrum, which means highly partisan coverage can alienate readers. However, when a government or leader becomes terminally unpopular – as Labor did – it is easier to do so. Contrary to popular wisdom, newspapers generally follow popular opinion – they don’t lead it.
Devine: Taking a strong position on an issue of principle is not bias. It is what readers expect from The Daily Telegraph.
Price: I think that journalism has changed from this concept that everything is objective. I think our modern concept of journalistic ethics is for people to understand that when we’re journalists we have got fully formed views, we’ve got opinions and it’s difficult to remove ourselves from those. So we are aiming more for fairness and accuracy and a range of views, rather than expecting us to be totally without bias. That said, I think that there are some reporters who do not do a very good job of either being transparent about where they’re coming from, or giving a free range of expression around the topic at hand. I think that’s particularly evident in environment reporting.
Simons: Depends what you mean by fair. It is certainly the case that some newspapers (mainly those owned by News Corp Australia) campaign on issues and take a strong stance. However, it is also the case that many industry practitioners have not really thought through what they mean by terms such as “objective”. As a result the debate in Australia is impoverished and muddied and rarely gets anywhere. People also tend to think only about the last few decades, at most. If you look at the history of newspapers, many emerged from pamphleteering.
Objectivity as a concept and an aim arises around the early 1800s, and not consistently even then. However, it is one of the aspirations that has traditionally distinguished quality journals of record from the rest. Originally, it was seen as a market advantage to be moderate in tone and impartial, to mark a publication out from the rest. I think it probably still is.
Do you believe it is wrong for a paper to put forward a strident point of view or be provocative in its presentation?
Ackland: No, but it’s really very much a matter of the personal tastes of consumers. For me, I don’t like strident newspapers – but apparently heaps of people do. In normal circumstances the market would make a judgment about unacceptable journalism. The trouble is that in Australia the mainstream newspaper industry is so concentrated that normal market mechanisms don’t work.
So we’re stuck with a sort of oligopoly, but with one very dominate (and strident) player. Not healthy.
Bolt: Not at all. Some people will hate it, some will like it. Go too far and you lose people. Go not far enough and you could be dull, irrelevant or a sell-out. The Age is very provocative and strident in presenting global warming as the new apocalypse. It think it’s gone too far and isn’t fair. It would argue that it is saving the planet and can do no other. Its readers will decide on the wisdom of this approach.
Cater: Definitely not. Readers respond to a newspaper with character – one that knows its own mind – so long as it is upfront about it, and gives its readers permission to disagree.
Devine: No, as I outlined in my response to the previous question.
Price: That’s fine so long as the reporting is still real reporting. Newspapers have always been very critical of whoever has power. You see now, when you look at The Australian, they’re criticising Tony Abbott, whereas that would have been unheard of a year ago. No one was really examining the Liberal Party, but now the Liberal Party is in power, there’s real examination of what they’re saying and doing and I think that’s a swings and roundabouts thing. I don’t think that anything there has changed.
Simons: No. But I do subscribe the code of ethics and press council principles, both of which emphasise adhering to the facts, and not distorting the facts. Also, not suppressing relevant available information.
Do you believe comment, or interpretation, has a place in a news story?
Ackland: No. Comment should be separate from news reporting – even if alongside the news report and written by the same journalist.
Bolt: It tends to alienate readers and build distrust, but every now and then it can be hugely powerful. Remember some of the first reports on the liberated Nazi concentration camps? However, all articles have embedded values.
Cater: Absolutely not. The facts are all that matter. They make the argument.
Devine: I think comment should be clearly labelled comment. Straight news, presenting both sides of a story, is important for credibility.
Price: I think it’s fine for a proprietor to have a viewpoint, I think it’s terrible for a reporter to leave out facts from stories because it doesn’t suit the agenda of the paper.
Simons: Yes, but in adherence with the code of ethics and press council principles.
Balance is important in reporting news. Do you think ideology at times outweighs objectivity in reporting in our newspapers?
Ackland: Yes. The Murdoch papers unquestionably pursue a right wing ideology in conformity with the proprietor’s views. As a result news reports, headlines and captions are skewed to meet the ideological objectives. Fairfax papers have a softer more centrist ideology, but tend to be far less strident.
Bolt: Balance is not as important as judgment and fairness. Would you have insisted on balance in a report from Berlin on Kristallnacht or the “liberation” of the Sudetenland? If a jet smashes into New York’s tallest buildings, you want your on-the-spot reporter to look as unmoved as they’d be if reporting stock prices? As for ideology outweighing objectivity, who is objective? You report on a jihadist sawing off someone’s head and you’re meant to be objective? Where’s the objectivity in deciding that a car-accident-kills-three-in- our-city story is far, far more important than 100-dead-in-Bangladesh- ferry disaster?
Ask, rather, if ideology leads to important omissions and a lack of fairness in some papers. Take news reports on global warming which label sceptics ‘deniers” and refuse to explain what the sceptics allegedly “deny”. Look how many refer to carbon dioxide emissions as “pollution”. See how very many stories about dangerous man-made warming fail to ad that, oops, there has been no rise in atmospheric temperatures for some 16 years. I hope you complain each time you see that.
Cater: Not intentionally. The most common type of bias is not ideological bias but cognitive bias and related errors, e.g. groupthink.
Price: I don’t think objectivity in that traditional sense exists anymore, I think fairness exists. Fairness and transparency is what we should be striving for, they are absolutely key. Do some organisations fail to do that? Do some reporters fail to do that sometimes? Yes they do. Is it constant? It comes and goes in waves and part of the issue for reporters is that they’re being asked to do a lot in a short amount of time and I think that sometimes means that they go to their tame contacts, the ones that they are with all the time.
Simons: This is a very conceptually muddy question, and therefore impossible to answer sensibly. Balance is not the same as fairness. I would say fairness is important, and balance is not necessarily important. Ideology and objectivity are not opposites. I find it impossible to sensibly answer this question. Please read Kovac and Rosentiel and the other eminent journalists who have thought through these issues.
What is your response to each of the attached front pages? Neither of them are objective, but are they fair?
Ackland: These sort of front pages are more like what you’d expect in a comic book than a newspaper. My complaint is not so much about lack of objectivity (that is their right), but at the low grade humour.
Bolt: They are opinions, and those who share them would judge them fair. And those complaining they are unfair should just buy themselves another paper. Don’t like the turd word, though.
Cater: Both brilliant front pages in their context and in view of their readership. Both are witty – smart humour grants a lot of licence. It will entertain readers.
Devine: Maybe I’m biased, but The Daily Telegraph front page is clearly marked as an editorial and it is the longstanding practice pre-election of all newspapers to pick a side. The only difference here is the editorial is on the front page. The Daily News is just plain offensive and inexcusably, unfairly biased, especially since the Democrats deserved at least some of the blame for the shutdown.
Price: The Daily News front cover is disgusting but also compelling and I would say that the readership would be totally on board with that. The readership would be saying ‘this is how I feel right now about what is happening’. They’re not getting paid and the politicians are still getting paid. I would say it reflects their audience absolutely correctly. It’s certainly not impartial, it’s furious, but then the readership was furious as well.
The Daily Telegraph front page was absolutely compelling and would certainly have reflected the feelings of many voters as we could see from the results of the election. Good design, it’s eye-catching, it’s attention grabbing. Is it fair? It’s unusual for an editorial to be on page one, but that’s what it was, and editorials are always very highly opinionated. Clearly the editor thought that they needed a place to command even more attention and they certainly did that.
Simons: Again, your question is very muddy conceptually. Both front pages are expressions of opinion, and that is one of the functions and roles of the free press. To ask if someone’s opinion is “fair” is not really a sensible question. They are entitled to hold their opinions. I don’t have to agree.
It becomes unfair and unethical if, in expressing their opinions, they give wrong facts distort facts, or leave out key facts.
The main problem with both front pages is that they are fundamentally dull and a turn-off – a fact that is obscured by journalists’ obsession with talking about themselves, which means that despite their essential dullness they were much discussed by other journalists. These are both examples of the relevant mastheads being predictable – saying exactly what you would expect them to say, and hammering the readers over the head with their point of view.
You see the same thing, equally dull, from left publications such as Green Left Weekly. The opinion might be different. The basis of the editorial judgement is boringly similar. Readers don’t buy newspapers in order to be told what to think. They buy them, mainly, for the facts. For the news.
Do you feel that stories in newspapers are skewed by omission of facts or in their interpretation of facts? Do you feel this happens often?
Ackland: I feel there is quite a lot of dishonest reporting in one particular paper, which I regard as a propaganda sheet that is done in a very unclever and unsubtle way.
Bolt: Absolutely. I’ve seen it in reporting on our border policies (refusals for years to mention the dead), on climate change, on Ukraine and more.
Cater: It is perfectly possible for two people to reach separate conclusions from the same empirical information, and this happens in newspapers. All reporting involves selecting facts – but the deliberate omission of facts because they run counter to your story is unforgivable. It is dishonest.
Devine: I think it is happening increasingly, particularly in the coverage of climate change in which information which calls into question the accuracy of climate models, for instance, has been wilfully ignored and ridiculous explanations gullibly accepted.
Price: I wouldn’t say it happens regularly, I would say it happens sometimes. I would say it happens across all platforms and all ownership groups. Reporters fail to do their jobs properly in the way that other people in other jobs fail to do their jobs properly.
Simons: Yes, sometimes. It happens too often for comfort.
Would you refuse to buy a newspaper whose view you disagree with?
Ackland: Yes. I find one paper so dishonest I rarely buy it.
Bolt: Perhaps if it did so on important issues, and particularly if it then misrepresented or omitted the truth. I want to be treated as an adult. But then again, I like to know what the foe is saying or reading.
Cater: Absolutely not. In fact when I am overseas I deliberately buy newspapers from across the spectrum. It is the best way to identify the fault lines in civic debate.
Devine: Not at all, if it were well written, broke news stories, was accurate and honourable.
Price: Every day I flick through all the papers. There’s always something that I think is completely ridiculous. I love the contrast, I love the conversation. Often I am reading something and I’m thinking ‘what the hell is this about?’ and that’s from something as small as ‘my god this is poorly written and they haven’t got the story’, to ‘the politics of this is so grotesque that I cannot understand why they are making this call’. I don’t buy things to reflect my politics; I buy things to be informed.
Do you feel that print can deliver a more powerful, provocative message than other media?
Ackland: Yes. Print still sets the agenda, which feeds radio, TV and internet news and commentary.
Bolt: Different media have different ways of being powerful. Print delivers the argument in full, with the audience given time to consider each word. TV can rub your face in things. Radio can whisper in your ear. Blogs can confide privately, between friends.
Cater: You’re asking me to compare apples and oranges. Visual media are more likely to evoke emotion and passion. It is harder with print, but when it is achieved it is very passionate.
Devine: For sure. Prints leads broadcast media, breaks the stories, does real journalism, provides the commentary. Because of its permanent nature, it is more likely to be accurate and responsible.
Price: No. I think online can be very provocative, I think videos can be very provocative, I think everyone can deliver content in a particular way.
Simons: Not necessarily. New media can be effective in areas that print can’t touch. Print has its strengths, but has no monopoly on power or provocation.
Does print have a greater obligation to principles of objectivity and neutrality? Is there a perception that it does?
Ackland: Yes. Print is the anchor and plays such an important part in our democracy. Its duty is not only to its readers, but to a wider social democratic ideal – hence objectivity and neutrality play an important part. Commentary should be quarantined and, of course, rigorous. The real issue is one of newspaper ownership concentration. The fact that Australia has the highest concentration of newspaper ownership in the western world it the real tragedy of our free press.
Bolt: Print has no obligation in the way that speech doesn’t. It’s a medium of communication. Let’s not start waving incense over it. Don’t like the messenger? Then shoot it and get one you like. Most people complaining about a newspaper’s lack of neutrality usually have no trouble whatsoever accepting the most outrageous bias from newspapers which vote as they do. And what’s neutrality? If a newspaper reports on the latest victims of a mass-murderer or despot, you want neutrality? If you’re a warming alarmist, you want neutrality about what you perceive to be the end of humanity?
Cater: The first and only duty of a newspaper reporter is to tell the truth. Truth is objective. Judgments about bias and neutrality on the other hand are subjective.
Devine: Yes, because there is a clear tradition of comment segregated from straight news. But that doesn’t preclude a newspaper having “attitude” and a point of view, and engaging in campaigns from time to time which are in sync with the readers’ views.
Price: No. Tabloids have existed for a long time, they’ve never been neutral. I don’t think people expect more from print. If you’re looking at one program that has a lot expected of it it’s 7.30. I’ve never seen such pressure put on any program as that one, I could not cope with that degree of scrutiny.
Simons: No. Journalism is a practice, not a medium. It is journalism that has obligations to objectivity, properly understood (and this is not the same as neutrality). Increasingly, people trust (or distrust) particular journalists and sometimes particular mastheads, but this is not dependent on whether it is a print publication or online. Overwhelmingly, the research tells us that people don’t trust the mainstream commercial media much. The industry is in denial about these findings, but would be better placed for the future if it faced up to them, and their implications for future practice.