Confronting editorial bias in election coverage

Defining editorial bias in election coverage

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Adam Lisagor</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0</a>
Image by Adam Lisagor released via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Allegations of bias in the news media happen all the time, but they are most evident at election time. Politicians and public interest groups may regard the omission of certain news items or issues from newspapers and radio and television news bulletins as a deliberate act of bias.

They may also feel the same about the angle given to a story or the choice made about its place in a page or a bulletin. More often than not, journalists make these choices on the basis of sound professional judgement. But mistakes are made.

When deadlines are tight and pressures are greatest, the weighing of these factors may be less thorough. In general, journalists must strive for fairness and for decisions made solely on the basis of news value.

The conspiracy theory

The “conspiracy theory” of deliberate bias is rejected by most journalists as being based on an inadequate knowledge by outsiders of the editorial process.

As insiders we know, too often, that it is lapses of judgement and cock-up rather than conspiracy that is to blame when things go awry in the newsroom.

Rejecting the notion of conspiracy, one senior newspaper editor has written:

“We do not conspire with outsiders because we are newspaper people — not politicians, megalomaniacs or political dilettantes. We do not slant news to favour any political party because — apart from being a fraud on our readers and bad journalism — to do so is dishonest. Journalism in its purest form is simply telling the truth, so long as it is in the public interest. We do not conspire with outsiders. We do not write for politicians or parties. We write for people.”

Political pressure

Most journalists might accept that, but we all know, too, that political pressure exists. Often it is based upon the traditional community of support to which media appeal — liberal newspapers tend to be left of centre in their editorial columns; conservative newspapers will favour right of centre politics.

Partisan journalism can be good journalism. Campaigning journalism has often nurtured the best tradition in the profession, but the opinions of the editorial columns should not interfere with the process of news gathering, news selection and placement. That is something which journalists always try to respect, and that is difficult for many outside journalism to understand.

Therefore, allegations of deliberate, political bias are easy to make and often difficult to refute. The choices to be made every day between different kinds of news and views and the omission of some items and the inclusion of others is bound to result in professional judgement which can be defined as bias.

A journalist comments:

“Of course the press is biased. The gathering, editing and publishing of news involves decisions by people who inevitably bring their own background, values and prejudices to bear on deciding what to select, emphasize and colour as news. Bias is inevitable; it is lack of balance in the representation of a range of views that is criticised. Lack of balance may characterise not only the way politics is presented in reports, but more generally, the way women, unions, homosexuals and minorities are reported.”

Unintentional bias

Even media critics, if pressed, would acknowledge that the media cannot be entirely free of bias. They would accept, for instance,that the editorial column, which serves as the institutional voice of a newspaper on a wide range of issues, must of necessity be biased because it expresses an opinion, even though such opinion must always be based on confirmed facts.

Nor would they object to the right of columnists to express their opinions, even if they disagree with them. Generally, what is objected to is a lack of balance in news columns, which are supposed to contain objective reportage, as far as that can be achieved.

Deliberate bias

Deliberate bias, sometimes slight, sometimes excessive, is the result of a conscious decision by the reporter, editor or proprietor to be partisan rather than even-handed.

Examples are the suppression of essential or important facts and the deliberate distortion of other facts through wrong or improper emphasis. Bias happens also when, for instance, newsreaders summarize speeches of the opposition with little or no footage whereas they run long footage of the speech by the ruling party candidate.

Subtle bias

Bias can also be seen in “camera angles” when TV crews are asked to focus on a campaign rally in such a way that it appears larger than it really is. Or when they are being asked to film the “best” or the “worst” profile of a candidate.

But the fact that a newspaper prints more news about the President or Prime Minister than about the Opposition leader or opposition candidate is not of itself evidence of deliberate bias.

It might reflect the fact that the President or Prime Minister does or says more as a result of the duties of his or her office; or that the President or Prime Minister is interesting and the opponent is dull; or that they provide information to meet deadlines.

Many journalists question whether it is the job of the media to go out of their way to polish up the Opposition’s image or improve its media skills to account for any such deficiencies.

Acting fairly

However, it is the media’s job to act fairly. Remember that many politicians are skilled at manipulating people, including media.

Some candidates are so obsessed with getting their message across without any journalistic filter that they have resorted to new ways of addressing directly the electorate.

In the 1992 presidential elections in the United States billionaire candidate Ross Perot rented television time to avoid having to talk to free media. He could, and did, buy all the airtime he wanted.

The bad news for our profession was that each time he attacked journalists, the switchboard of his headquarters was overwhelmed with calls from people volunteering for his campaign. Some candidates went on the television talk-show circuit with no journalist present and answered questions fielded directly by the public.

Journalists should carefully listen to the questions asked by the public: they may serve as an excellent barometer of real public concerns and as a warning for journalists as to the way they effectively cover those concerns.

Journalists are a link, not a veil

Never forget that you are a link between the event and the reader, listener or viewer and not a veil. News coverage should not become a barrier between the candidates and the voters. It should be a bridge connecting them.

“That desire of the people to become more involved in the political process is here to stay,” says Seymour Topping of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“It will have increasing influence on newspapers as well as the electronic media. People will want to be in a position to have their views recorded more often and at greater length in newspapers. This can be done through letters to the editor, it can be done through op-ed pages and in news columns in the sense that reporters are drawn more to talk to the people themselves rather than addressing all their questions to politicians or to the leaders in business and the professions.”

Media bashing

Always be prepared for media bashing. Many candidates, especially lacklustre or losing candidates, think they get unfavourable coverage in the press and try the put the blame on the media. Do not be intimidated. Just do your job.

News values

Bias is also about news priorities. We can choose to focus on a particular issue, or we can join the herd in following a particular controversy, or we can decide to refrain from getting behind the glitz and the glamour of personality or character politics.

Bias occurs when we focus on the internal dynamics of an election campaign, on its “horse race” model instead of digging deep into the most substantive issues of the day. Beware of allowing a gap to grow between your news values and the nation’s real concerns.

According to studies in the United States (Out of Order by Thomas Patterson) “the voters’ concerns are closer to those of the candidates. The Markle Commission’s study of the 1988 campaign concluded that voters believe they get their best information about the candidates from debates”. And not from journalists!

Checks and balances

Bias should be fought by media organisations. A process of checks and balances can be set up within the newsroom itself in order to correct imbalance in reporting. Some media organisations have adopted operating procedures that guide journalists in the day-to-day dilemmas of their work.

Some have devised a reviewing process that closely monitors the performance of the newsroom. Others have even appointed a readers’ representative or ombudsman that is supposed to attend to readers’ complaints and to review the way the newspaper has covered a particular story.

Let us not forget that self-regulation and internal control procedures are always better than control by a press council stocked with “wise men” recruited outside of the profession and often endowed with legal or punitive powers.

John Paul Marthoz
Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. He is a columnist for Le Soir (Brussels) and teaches international journalism at the Université Catholique de Louvain. He is the author of Couvrir les migrations (Reporting migration, 2013) and Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists (UNESCO, 2017). He has been European press director for Human Rights Watch and EU correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists.