Bias in Mainstream Print Media
To say that the mainstream print media are hostile to the government of the day, and sympathetic to the Opposition would be stating the obvious. Despite their claims of being “objective and independent” (when the notion of genuine journalistic independence implies taking an “equidistant” position between reporting on the government and the Opposition), I wish to argue that the mainstream print media systematically adopt discriminatory practices against any government led by the Labour Party and the ethnic community it is perceived as representing, given the ethnicisation of virtually all the sectors of our society. This community, especially its political leaders, are systematically represented in a different way than other minority groups, for which the written press, under the euphemism of “contre-pouvoir” they claim to represent, are the self-appointed spokespersons.
Language is systematically manipulated when representing different ethnic groups and political parties. A close look at the language that newspapers use will suffice to see that there is a bias against the Labour Party and the ethnic community it is perceived as representing. Prejudice is widespread in our society. We cultivate sugar and prejudices, said de Chazal, and, consequently, among journalists, the media is likely to reflect that prejudice.
Headlines are extremely important in news reports. Firstly, they catch the readers’ attention and cause them to stop and take a deeper look at the article. They are used to summarise what the article is about and the reader usually scans the headlines to see if they are interested in reading the full article. We are told by media experts that headlines are often used to show ideological values of the newspapers. Talbot, Atkinson & Atkinson (2003: 38, 39) report that:
“A definite feature of news reporting is the use of headline and/or lead to express, in a highly concise form, the crux of the news event and to orient the reader to process the text in a pre-determined direction… In a genre of discourse where space is a premium, news headlines have to be crafted in such a way as to employ the minimum number of words to package maximum information. Thus, every word in a headline is carefully chosen and structured so as to maximize the effect of the headline. In this way, headlines often encapsulate the newspaper’s ideological values and attitudes…”
In their article on discourse analysis of newspaper headlines, Develotte and Rechniewski talk about the importance of headlines in the following areas:
“ …that headlines reach an audience considerably wider than those who read the articles since they are often glanced at fleetingly or glimpsed on public transport, etc.
… that impact is deliberately sought through the use of puns, alliteration, the choice of emotive vocabulary and other rhetorical devices.
… that headlines encapsulate the perspective that the readers should bring to their understanding of the article.
… they impose a particular view of the world by imposing on information a hierarchy of importance, from top to bottom of a page, according to size of font, in order of appearance from front page to back, etc.
…repetition through synchronicity (repetition in the same newspapers) and diachronicity (repetition over time).
…headlines are a rich source of information about the field of cultural references. Because the titles ‘stand alone’ without explanation or definition, they depend on readers to identify the content of the articles.
… they rely on a stock of cultural knowledge, representations and models of reality that must be assumed to be widespread in the society.”
Therefore it is important to look at the headlines in the articles we read to see in what ways one ethnic group or political party is represented. Framing is another important strategy to look at when deciding how a group is being represented in the media. The way something is presented to the readers affects how we read the situation. This is done through the way the material is ordered, with the most significant facts (in the media’s view) coming first and the other side’s being either ignored or sandwiched between two opposing points of view.
Framing is the process whereby communicators act to construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be viewed (or ignored) in a particular manner, with some facts made more noticeable than others (e.g. resignation of a Labour Party official being given greater prominence than resignation of his MMM counterpart). When speaking of political and social issues, frames actually define our understanding of any given situation.
Another strategy is media selectivity. The basic idea is that journalists present news topics that they want the public to focus on (e.g. discourse on poverty in a country which all objective overseas observers, even the US Trade representative, acknowledge as a success story in Africa in terms of economic growth, see Newsweek 18 February 2010 — an item entirely ignored by the media).Not only do they choose what is available, but also the way they present the news article influences the way we think about the topic.
Media power shows selectivity in the news. It tells us about some issues and events and not about others. Thus it controls the information that is available to media audiences and so has the potential to shape or to set limits to their social perspective and to the images that they can construct of the world in which they live. Journalists may follow the rules for objective reporting and yet convey a dominant framing of the news that prevents most audience members from making a balanced assessment of a situation.
What are the possible reasons for bias in the print media?
Why is this so? What possible benefits would newspapers have in representing a group or party in a discriminatory fashion? Fowler (1991: 13) makes the following comment:
“The news media select events for reporting according to a complex set of criteria of newsworthiness; so news is not simply that which happens, but that which can be regarded and presented as newsworthy… News is not “found” or even “gathered” so much as made. It is a creation of a journalistic process, an artifact, a commodity even.”
Therefore, sensational stories that contain “bad” news sell more newspapers than stories with a “feel good” factor. Another consideration is economics. Newspaper owners are in the business to make money. Fowler (1991: 121) also tells us that:
“Economic circumstances strengthen this importance, and lend shape to the ideology. The main economic purpose of newspapers appears to be to sell advertising space… Another economic circumstance which relates to the paper’s ideological roles is the fact that most of them are owned by people and companies which are commercial enterprises, often selling a range of products and services other than newspapers. It stands to reason that a newspaper is likely to project such beliefs as are conducive to the commercial success of its proprietors generally. That is partly a political matter, in a society whose parliamentary parties divide fundamentally on economic theory and policies.”
Newspaper owners do not want to offend advertisers or the public to which the advertisements are directed at. Therefore, a story will usually be slanted towards the group that has power in that particular community.
A further consideration is politics and ideology. Most newspapers around the world have either a left wing bias or lean to the right and this affects the way the stories are covered. The bias against what is perceived to be the majority community is evident in many of the newspaper articles, and as such the media’s role is both as barometer and catalyst of much of the anti-majority community bias in our society.