Feature: Mainstream Media and the Myth of Neutrality

For as long as there have been mainstream news outlets, reporting has been so lacking and misleading that it is hardly more valuable than ‘fake news’ in informing our perception of the world.  Hence, re-evaluating the standards by which we judge news outlets ought to be seen as a remedy for many of the problems concerning democracies today.

Photo: bbc.co.uk/

The crux of the problem is this: mainstream media fashions itself after the court of law. It justifies its attempts at neutral reporting by claiming that its raison d’etre is to provide objectively true accounts of events. But of course, even if we grant that seeking objective truth should be the correct purpose of courts of law, this is certainly not the case with news media. Neutrality of any kind, Thomas Paul Wolff suggested decades ago, is the worst “prescription for institutional behaviour”. Not because “what it prescribes is wrong; it is impossible”. Hence, ‘neutrality’ is a priori incompatible with knowledge communicated to us by the news media. One is hard pressed to think of a mainstream news outlet (particularly on television) that proclaims partisanship. Every national daily news broadcast on TV I have ever come across subscribes to the ‘myth of neutrality’. Crucially, however, the impossibility of reporting objective truths does not mean that anything goes. Rather, we need a more nuanced value: accuracy. That is, we can still acknowledge that there is a more accurate account of an event, even though there is no objectively true account of that event. This modified cardinal virtue of the news media permits both an embracing of subjective analysis, but also a universal recognition of the same ‘rules of the game’, as it were.

The peddling of the myth of neutrality is extremely harmful to society. News outlets that refrain from declaring ethical imperatives and political stances explicitly still make their position clear by their silence. As Wolff further notes, in cases of representative (i.e. all extant) democracies, not responding to an act is morally tantamount to acquiescence of it, and “acquiescence in governmental acts, under the guise of impartiality, actually strengthens the established forces”. This is easy to extend beyond the pale of domestic politics: if the standard practice is to relate global events as ‘matter-of-fact’, indifference to moral tragedies becomes normalised in the eyes of the public.

Photo: Creative Commons

Unsurprisingly, the root of the problem is a financial one. Currently, most mainstream media is either publicly funded or privately, corporately funded. The former fiscal situation makes unimpinged criticism of government unlikely, and as for the latter, Jon Schwarz of the Intercept puts it best: “Getting angry at the corporate media for not telling America the truth is like getting angry at chainsaws for doing a terrible job brushing your teeth.” The incentive of the broadcaster to distort the truth is massive in either case. Give your citizens the full picture, and they will want drastic change at the governmental level. Give your customers the full picture, and they will become outraged at the structures that permit you to make your profit. In this light, it begins to make sense why mainstream media almost uniformly provides disgracefully misleading perception of the world.

This isn’t journalism, this is reactionary, atavistic popcorn-munching at the (qualified) misfortune of others. When 60,000 Saharawi refugees were displaced by the worst flooding in two decades in February 2006, Google yields none, that is zero, news stories. I struggle to see how any news outlet that takes itself seriously would not report such an event. Maybe, if more guns were involved, then Western Sahara would generate some interest in the West. But then again, IRIN estimates that there are 44 conflicts in the world that are currently active, and yet the vast majority of them have less presence in mainstream news than the Irish horse racing industry. Akbar S. Ahmad’s writing from 1992 suggests that the same British media who were sounding the death-knell of experts in a ‘post-Brexit Britain’, couldn’t care less about expertise when it comes to Islam. During the Gulf War and ‘Rushdie Affair’ of the early 1990s, Akbar observed that during this time “What we did not hear, with some honourable exceptions, were the Middle East experts”. How can one trust outlets capable of such hypocrisy?

Source: Statistica.com

Statistics substantiate my claim with terrifying force. Recently, Our World in Data processed a 2007 report analysing media coverage of deaths around the world, covering 5,000 natural disasters and 700,000 news stories. Nathan J Robinson from Current Affairs notes that “the loss of 1 European life was equivalent to the loss of 45 African lives, in terms of the amount of coverage generated” by “major news networks”. In Asia, it is 43 lives, and in the Pacific, 91.

Hopefully this has been a convincing case for why we need to completely re-evaluate the standards by which we judge mainstream news outlets – there is currently a causal connection between being mainstream news media, and being bad news media. Namely, we should tear them down and start again, taking notes from constructively partisan, ‘fringe’ news outlets like the Intercept (in its anti-establishment stance) and IRIN (in its humanitarianism). Otherwise, the populations of the world’s most powerful nations are as misinformed about the world as they would be if they believed ‘Top of the Pops’ was an accurate representation of the entire art form of music.

Lochlann Atack

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