News: Balance Bias with Critical Questions
This article originally appeared in Issue# 50
When I read the daily newspaper or watch the evening news, what is missing often upsets me as much as what is there. What is missing frequently seems to be the truth.
Of course, as the Chinese proverb frequently quoted by the late Latin American journalist, Penny Lernoux, says, "There is your truth, there is my truth and there is the truth."
Most of us are convinced that "my truth" is "the truth." But as we move into the '90s, more and more sophisticated news management techniques will be used to convince us that someone else's "truth" should be ours. After living in Latin America most of the past nine years, I am convinced that there is a great deal of untruth, some of it deliberate, in what is presented in U.S. media about the rest of the world and even about domestic issues.
However, with a little practice, you can learn to recognize the subjective underpinnings of a story.
One important point to remember is that objective reporting is a myth. Every reporter brings to the story his/her own biases and world view. Each reporter has to make choices in writing the story: what to include, what to leave out, what sources to use. A few well-placed adjectives, a few uses of "alleged" or "so- called" can cast a definite ideological twist.
Two reporters can see the same event very differently. I experienced this in a dramatic way when the pope visited Nicaragua in 1983. While many U.S. reporters, especially those arriving and departing with the pope, saw crowds "jeering and heckling" the pontiff, others saw a very different reality -- poor Nicaraguans concerned at the continuing loss of their loved ones in the contra war and frustrated at what they felt was the Holy Father's refusal to respond to their pain.
The struggle to appear balanced can obscure "the truth," and it often rests on shaky assumptions. One is the principle that if two perspectives are totally opposed, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. Another principle stresses that the media must never appear one-sided. Thus, much violence in Third World countries and elsewhere is presented as innocent civilians caught in the crossfire between two equally repugnant forces -- even in the face of clear evidence of greater levels of abuse by one side.
Another version of the distorted idea of balance requires that every quote that contradicts previous norms, assumptions -- or U.S. policies -- must be countered by a quote from the administration or a "Western diplomat" or "high official source." This appearance of balance usually leaves the reader hopelessly lost.
The effort to appear objective frequently results in just the opposite, a weighted coverage favoring the current political "party line," or at least not challenging the conventional perspective. Even in domestic coverage , reliance on official sources and the distorting effect of prejudices and fears can lead to the kind of injustice that occurred in late l989 when William Bennett, a black, was arrested for a murder apparently committed by the white Charles Stuart. Stuart used fears about minority crime to avoid suspicion for the murder of his wife. The Boston media's dependence on police sources and automatic assumptions about racial tensions helped create a false picture.
Many factors impede the transmission of accurate information, including changes taking place in the media itself, from more and more outlets owned by fewer and fewer corporations/conglomerates to TV coverage that focuses on the 30-second sound bite instead of description or analysis. In newspaper coverage, superficial, but very popular treatments such as the headline format developed by USA Today, work against critical analysis that could challenge official propaganda.
Also, reporters increase their access to sources when they write material that meets source approval, and lose it when they challenge the assumptions of those sources.
Less and less often do major networks or newspapers, let alone local media, station correspondents overseas for any length of time. So when an international story breaks, reporters fly in with no background on the issue, often without speaking the language or understanding anything of the area's history or culture. The result is a too-easy reliance on "official" sources.
The missing voices of activists and grass roots sources are a cause for great concern even when establishment bias is unintentional. But reporters' dependence on authorities makes them--and by extension media consumers--particularly vulnerable to deliberate attempts to mislead by governments and agencies. A case in point was the Office of Public Diplomacy, set up in the State Department during the Reagan administration to drum up support for the contras. Supervised by Oliver North, press releases were created that deliberately put out false information. In point of fact, reporters should consider the axes being ground by any government office of information, but all too often their accounts are taken at face value.
Reading Between the Lines
Judging the accuracy of what we read, see or hear in the media is not easy. However, it is possible to ask critical questions, to help determine whether or not we are getting the whole story.
- Who are the sources and what are their perspectives? How many are U.S. officials? How many are "unnamed?" How many are critics of U.S. policy? Be suspicious of accounts that come only from high officials and of any reports released during a military emergency. (Journalists were banned from Grenada until the U.S.invasion was over, and press pool reports were reviewed by the military during the invasion of Panama.) But more subtle influences occur all the time -- for example, are foreign "person on the street" interviews only with those who are well-educated or who speak English well?
- Are significant questions left unasked or unanswered? Is the political, social, economic or historical context missing? This is especially important in the early coverage of a breaking event. In the aftermath, many questions will be raised and criticisms made, but what will be remembered is what we first saw or heard. To the U.S. public, the event is an issue only as long as it is a headline or lead story. The fleeting appearances and disappearances of African famine from the news are one example. When coverage occurs, usually around a crisis situation, it seldom examines underlying social and political causes. If they are mentioned, the U.S. role in them is rarely questioned.
- Do quotes seem abridged or out of context? The New York Times quoted U.S. church worker Jennifer Casolo, upon her release by the Salvadoran military, saying, "I don't think I suffered." According to Newsday, she said, "I don't think I have suffered as terribly as the thousands of Salvadorans have suffered here." Quite a difference.
- Does coverage seem to offer a partial or selective history of events? References to returning Panama to "democracy" and to Eric Del Valle as the "last elected president of Panama" are a case in point. In actuality, Del Valle was both instituted and removed from office by General Manuel Noriega. The last elected president of Panama was Nicolas Ardito Barletta. He was elected in May 1985, in elections -- defended by the U.S. -- that were so fraudulent he was referred to as "El Fraudito."
- Are exaggerated or rhetorical claims reported uncritically without journalistic scrutiny? Loaded adjectives or phrases like "terrorist," "left-wing," "freedom fighters" (or President Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" remarks) should alert us to short-hand rhetoric that conveys an ideological point of view. One of the most overused and misused words in political coverage is "democracy." Democratic-style government can be organized in a variety of ways; the U.S. model is only one. We can be suspicious when the press repeats phrases over and over as if they held the same meaning for everyone.
- What stories or events are not covered? For example, during the media's recent focus on Eastern Europe, Brazil's presidential elections passed virtually unnoticed, even though there are more Brazilians than Poles, Hungarians and Czechs put together. Many parts of the world are covered by U.S. media only if American troops are there, if the U.S. has major economic interests or if the administration is waging a propaganda offensive. It is a sad journalistic truism that many Third World countries only make the news if there are "coups or earthquakes. "
No one can form an opinion from stories that are never covered. That's why alternative sources of news are so important. But the critical reader can learn to read between the lines of brief and biased accounts. Asking the right questions about what we see and hear is the first step toward making the informed political choices on which the freedom we value so highly depends.