Watching the reporters

I’m glad I’m a columnist. In Impolitics, I don’t have to pretend.

One of the great myths of news reporting, and media in general, is the pretense of “objectivity.” It’s the goal—the impossible ideal, really—of balanced neutrality, of the reporter as observer, neither participant in the story nor injecter of her or his personal biases.

Rubbish. Media has never been objective, and in this age of corporate newsrooms and three-second sound bites, it’s getting worse.

Examples abound; any edition of a daily paper or evening newscast can be dissected for bias, usually a bias that is less towards liberalism or conservatism (though that happens, too) than towards corporatism and power. It is a bias that is not directly dictated by the needs or whims of advertisers, though that influence can at times be felt. More importantly, the personal assumptions and professional needs of reporters and editors almost invariably play a role in what gets reported, how it gets reported, and what you notice from the story.

To pick an almost random example, the feature story in the Sunday Seattle Times last week was a piece by business writer Stephen Dunphy on European refusal, despite World Trade Organization sanctions, to import hormone-fed beef from the US—and how this modern trade war is hurting small producers, both ranchers in Eastern Washington and mustard makers in France.

Nothing was “wrong” with how Dunphy wrote the story. The bias kicks in mostly with what he chose not to write about. Why, for example, don’t US beef producers simply offer hormone-free products to Europe, since consumers there (and many in the US as well) would prefer their food without the suspect new biotechnology? Because a business writer, not a science writer, wrote the story, no justification was offered for the new technology, and little examination of whether the foods are in fact safe was undertaken.

By personalizing the story with small producers in Eastern Washington and France, Dunphy creates reader identification with the woes faced by these small businesspeople. But international food trade is dominated by huge multinationals; we learn very little of the influence in both science and politics the corporate lobby has wielded.

Lastly, there is an underlying assumption, not surprising for the Times‘ leading business writer, that international trade is good and necessary. Why are we getting our mustard, or Europeans their beef, from 6,000 miles away? Isn’t the awkward standoff presided over by the World Trade Organization little different than the old-fashioned trade wars the WTO is supposed to prevent? How does this relate to the additional biotech agreements the WTO is expected to address in Seattle, if we can’t get the current agreements to work? And what about Europeans’ right, as local elected officials, to impose whatever food safety standards they deem appropriate? Even with the length of a Sunday feature, there is no room for such weighty questions. Which, if any, get addressed is up to the “objective” reporter.

Try this yourself with next Sunday’s feature article or the lead story on tonight’s newscast. What’s missing? How do the cultural and political assumptions of the reporter, editor, or news organization affect what’s being told? The goal of any story in an industry that measures its success by audience size is to engage the viewer, listener, or reader; how are you, as an audience, being manipulated? What are you supposed to know, what are you supposed to feel, from an objective news story?

Here’s the next level of media literacy: Who benefits from these biases? Is it the same parties repeatedly? Oftentimes, yes; it’s corporate America and the government. The former, for one obvious example, gets the benefit of constant reporting of “business” news (stock prices, etc.). Far more of the audience works than owns stock, but we don’t get “worker” news. TV news, with its emotive reliance on scary crime stories, often implies that we need fewer civil liberties and more police in our unsafe world. Government legitimacy also benefits from constant citation of government sources for opinions on stories; much more rarely do we hear, for example, from citizen activists. For 24 years activists warned of genocide in East Timor while US spokespeople brushed concerns aside. Mainstream media followed the lead of the government, with predictable and tragic results.

In the 1990s, concentration of media ownership, both within mediums (TV, print, radio, books, magazines) and among them, has skyrocketed. A recent FCC ruling means that arrangements like KING and KONG TV, where one owner can own more than one TV broadcast signal in a market, will become common. 1996 legislation already opened the door for companies like Entercom to own as many as eight radio stations in a market, where two was once the limit. Now, a company with “only” two stations per city is a rarity. Noncommercial radio and TV have become just as commercialized as their corporate-owned brethren. (Visited the Channel 9 Store lately?) We may soon have only one daily paper in Seattle. Minority media ownership is becoming less, not more, common. The corporate-driven news “product” among all these media is becoming less and less diverse; you can virtually set your watch by the stories and story cycles of the competing Seattle TV newscasts, and chuckle buddies and buddettes news is now the norm on local radio newscasts, too.

One result: Few people vote or participate in our democracy because we’re tuning out. When we hear about it at all, politics and civic discourse is boring, predictable, and alienating.

So, I’m biased, and happy not to have to pretend otherwise. But we all are. You, as a reader and viewer and news consumer, need to judge all of our voices and decide for yourself. Be as skeptical of news stories as you would be of commercials. Ask yourself the same question: What am I being sold?