Readers, Writers, Texts

Journalism and Bias

“The basic definition of news as factual information that its viewers need in order to participate in society is only half the story.” 

Fiske, 1987

Many people might think that the news provides a window into the world, allowing you to understand what is going on everywhere, all the time. But it only takes a moment’s thought into the practical aspects of delivering the news to know that this is patently impossible. Televised news is often segmented into a slot of 30 minutes or one hour. Newspapers are bound by notions of weight and size and only have so many ‘column inches’ to fill. Even 24 hour news sites are limited by their visual or audio interfaces and only provide a selection of the ‘happenings’ in the world. Furthermore, there are commercial considerations: many media providers use the news to build an audience for the programmes that follow and to sell lucrative advertising space in the ‘prime time’ early evening TV schedules. Finally, companies producing the news do so for a particular society, and the news tends to reflect social norms and values. Therefore, you might say that the news presents a certain version of reality, rather than reality itself.

In this section you will learn some underlying theories of the news (whether print, online or televised) which will teach you to be critical about the information you receive via news media and ‘official’ outlets like mainstream newspapers, BBC, Sky or Fox news. You will learn key concepts such as newsworthiness, inherent bias and how the news is narrativized – turned into stories. 

Begin your study with an inquiry into ‘bias’ in the news by watching Outfoxed (above) and reading some of the following materials: 

Class Activity: One-Minute World News

Visit this broadcast, commissioned by the BBC and released once per day, which summarises the news from around the world. The BBC is a British-based broadcasting corporation with a reputation for impartiality and objectivity. Despite this, according to the theories you have read about, the news they choose to broadcast should still be inherently biased in some way. Watch the video summary, check what content is in the ‘Top Video’ section, and look at the headlines. You might even like to skim a couple of the main stories. Which biases – if any – can you detect in today’s feed?

Learner Portfolio

Is it possible to be completely unbiased? What does it mean that the news presents a ‘version of reality, rather than reality itself’? Like stories, the news contains narrative elements. What are these biases and elements? Write up your learning from this section in a one-two page journal entry.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: Newspaper Reports

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are two articles that expose the role of bias in news stories. Study the conventions of this text type, including uses of language, presentational and structural features, and stylistic features. Record your findings about the genre tropes and text conventions. Add this to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. Finally, you can test your Paper 1 analysis skills using the sample paper below:

Body of Work: Ross Kemp in Afghanistan

“Television news reports from journalists embedded with the military have become familiar to us in recent years. The journalist lives with the troops, sleeps where they sleep, eats what they eat, faces the same dangers they do and gets to know them as individuals. They are humanised, and surely that is a good thing – what could possibly be wrong with that? Nothing at all, if you are unconcerned about seeing impartial and balanced news coverage. But if you value these things, you should be worried. The praise heaped on embeds both by their colleagues and their audience for delivering to us “the reality of war” discounts one very important fact: that those journalists are invariably embedded with one side only. And that, in no shape or form, is balance – the very principle our major news channels claim underpins everything they do.”

– Alison Banville, Embedded War Reporting Cannot Escape it’s Own Bias

Investigate the concept of Embedded War Reporting, by watching this Sky One British documentary series fronted by actor and investigative journalist Ross Kemp about the British soldiers fighting in the War in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Consider how the medium (television film-making) creates a picture of reality for the viewer, and ask to what extent the documentary represents ‘real life.’

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: 

Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

This documentary would make an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Sky One.’ You could explore the Global Issues of Politics, Power and Justice or Beliefs, Values and Education. The text could be used to investigate inherent bias, evaluate the impact of viewpoint on the way a story is told, compare generic features of modern story-telling with those used in literary texts, explore the portrayal of war and conflict, or even question whether a documentary presents a ‘truer’ version of reality than a literary text. Speak to your teacher about ways to pair an extract from this documentary with a literary text, or use the following suggestions as a starting point: 

  • J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – compare the presentation of war by Ross Kemp in this documentary with the war in Shanghai as told through the eyes of Jim. 
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions – explore the presentation and impact of setting, or the attitudes of local people towards outsiders, as expressed by interviews in the documentary and discussions about English schools in Nervous Conditions.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – you could investigate to what extent cultural difference is a cause of conflict in these two texts.

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