In the Australian media, the concept of bias means partisanship of a kind that ought to be avoided in the reporting of news, but may be acceptable as part of commentary.
The ideal from which these normative standards sprang emerged towards the end of the 19th century, as journalism became more professionalised. Some leading publishers and editors, such as Joseph Pulitzer in the United States and C.P. Scott in Britain, began to advocate that the press owed a duty to the public that overrode sectional interest.
This represented a radical departure from earlier practice. In Britain especially, newspapers had long been owned by, and unashamedly represented the interests of, individual business people, political parties and trade unions. The new ideal posited that whatever the interests of the proprietor, the news content of the newspapers ought to be governed by four over-arching values: independence, impartiality, accuracy and fairness; partisan content ought to be confined to discrete and identifiable sections of the paper given over to commentary and opinion.
This separation was among the central tenets developed by the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press, which reported its findings in 1947, and formed part of what later became known as the social responsibility theory of the press. This theory held that in liberal democracies, the press—now extended to mean the media as a whole—received certain privileges and protections, in return for which society expected it to discharge certain functions, including a truthful, comprehensive, intelligent and contextualised account of the day’s events.
Out of this grew a professional adherence among journalists to the idea of ‘objectivity’. Journalists came to see themselves as detached, disinterested observers whose job was merely to report what they saw and heard. This well-intentioned but disingenuous self-view did not survive: it could not withstand the central criticism that journalists could not plausibly cut themselves off from all their past experiences, beliefs and attitudes, or the fact that the choice of every word, the structure of every sentence, the ordering of every set of facts in every story involved a value judgement.
A more honest and intellectually respectable concept was needed, and what emerged over the last quarter of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st centuries was a commitment to impartiality—the promise of something tangible that was attainable, and about which assessments might be made.
It was a more useful concept than bias, which was said—often justifiably—to exist in the eye of the beholder. A good example of this difficulty arose in 2003 when Senator Richard Alston, as Minister for Communications in the Howard Coalition government, lodged a complaint alleging bias against an ABC Radio current affairs program, AM. Alston provided 68 examples from the AM programs of 21 March to 14 April 2003, which he contended showed biased coverage of the war in Iraq, being ‘one-sided and tendentious commentary by program hosts and reporters’.
The ABC rejected all but two of Alston’s examples, and those were judged not to be instances of bias but of speculative reporting with a tendency to sarcasm. An independent review panel subsequently found that, taken as a whole, the coverage of the war on AM had not been biased. Three different examinations of the same material arrived at three radically different conclusions.
Lack of a commonly agreed definition did not help. Indeed, because of definitional difficulties, media codes of ethics have tended to concentrate on more tangible qualities such as fairness and balance than on bias. For example, the principal code for Australian journalists, that of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, exhorts journalists to commit to the values of honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others. It does not mention bias. Nor does the statement of principles of the Australian Press Council, which refers to accuracy, fairness and balance. The Code of Practice of the commercial television sector prefers ‘impartiality’, and the code for commercial radio prefers accuracy and fairness. All assert the need for a clear separation between news and opinion.
In its editorial policies, the ABC also eschews ‘bias’ in favour of ‘impartiality’. In 2007, as part of the development of a process of editorial quality assurance, it isolated what it considered to be the essential elements that constituted impartiality. These elements were subsequently refined and distilled for its revised Editorial Policies published in 2011 as ‘a balance that follows the weight of evidence; fair treatment; open-mindedness; opportunities over time for principal relevant perspectives on matters of contention’. This is the most comprehensive attempt by an Australian media organisation to define the meaning of impartiality in a way that would make assessment possible using transparent methods. Indeed, the ABC developed and pilot-tested methods for doing so, and published the results on its website in 2007 and 2008.
The concept of bias is thus more usefully thought of in terms of impartiality. Whatever term is used, in the second decade of the 21st century it remains a core value of Australia’s professional journalists to provide news content untainted by partisan interests. Their performance in doing so is better assessed against the qualities that make up impartiality than against the more elusive concept of bias. Their capacity to deliver on this core value is critical to public trust in the media. An anal- ysis of public opinion polls spanning 45 years (1966–2011), carried out for the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation (the Finkelstein Inquiry) in 2011, showed that the ABC was consistently perceived to be the least biased media organisation in Australia, and also consistently the most trusted.
It is also a legitimate criterion for assessing the media’s contribution to debate on major policy issues. In 2011, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism analysed the coverage of climate change policy in 10 Australian newspapers over a six-month period that year. Central to that policy was the introduction of a carbon tax. Its headline finding was that negative coverage of the Australian government’s climate policy outweighed positive coverage by 73 per cent to 27 per cent. It concluded that ‘many Australians did not receive fair, accurate and impartial reporting in the public interest in relation to the carbon policy in 2011’.
REFs: D. Muller, Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age (2014); S.J.A. Ward, Ethics and the Media (2011)