Readers, Writers, Texts

Distorted Reality

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

Robert Fiske, British Journalist (1946 – 2020)
In 2004, Robert Greenwald set out to prove that Fox was not a news organisation. Outfoxed, Greenwald’s documentary, is a hard-hitting assault on the right-wing network that discredits the channel’s slogan: ‘Fair and Balanced.’

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.

The fact is that everybody, journalists included, carry assumptions, attitudes, biases, fears, inclinations and prejudices around with them. We tend to see the world the way our parents, friends, schools, and racial or religious communities have defined it for us. We are also born of the culture that surrounds us: our jobs, the reading we do, the television programmes we watch and our government and economic system. Through a process called enculturation, all these influences the way we think and see and hear – and the quality and accuracy of our journalism. The journalist sees much of the world through lenses tinted by others. Even when the journalist makes images and stereotypes, he or she is also their victim.

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 about bias and discover how the news is narrativised, turned into stories, for public consumption.

Begin your inquiry into bias in the news by watching Outfoxed (above) and investigating some of the sources here: 

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity 1: Types of Bias

Work by yourself or in small groups and divide the reading materials in this section (above) between you. Read purposefully, looking for the following information. Can you find information about and define these types of bias in the news? Have you found any other types of bias that are not listed here?

  • Selection Bias
  • Placement Bias
  • Slanted Sourcing
  • Capitalist Bias
  • Moderatism
  • Visual Bias
  • Dramatisation
  • Personalisation
  • Loaded Language
  • Flawed Logic
  • Authority-Disorder
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Fragmentation
  • Labelling Bias
  • Lack of Context

Class Activity 2: Today’s News

This activity is best if you can get hold of a copy of today’s newspaper – or a couple of different editions of the day’s news in print – for you to interrogate. Before you begin, ensure you have a fair idea of how to detect bias in the news. Make use of the reading materials on this page and draw up some criteria of how to locate biases that might exist. According to the theories you have read about, the news you have in front of you should be inherently biased in some way: what types of bias can you detect in the news you have just consumed?

If you don’t have a printed newspaper or two, then you can find an online news outlet, or watch a 24 hour news stream for 30 minutes as an alternative. Make a note of the stories that are presented while you watch. You can look out for other information, such as the ‘ticker’ at the bottom of the screen which gives rolling headlines, and any indication of what stories might come up later in the day.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Is the news really a source of factual information? What does it mean that the news presents a ‘version of reality, rather than reality itself’?
  2. Like stories, the news contains narrative elements. What are these biases and elements? In what ways are news stories ‘narrativised’?
  3. How can you tell when the news is biased? Is it always possible to detect? What are the biggest give-aways that what you’re seeing is not the whole truth?

Learner Portfolio

Write an article for a student newspaper (if you don’t have a student paper, create a special one-off edition). Decide on an editorial approach. For example, are you going to make your piece ‘By Students, For Students’? This kind of thought-process is at the heart of the learning in this section.

If you complete this activity, not only can you put this piece in your Learner Portfolio, but you could use it for CAS as well. Writing an article for yourself is Creativity – publishing it for others to read counts as Service.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: diary entry

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 samples of diary entries. Diaries can function as records of events witnessed by individuals, and are always written from an individual point of view. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of diaries and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Key features of diaries
  • Viewpoint: as one of the most personal text types, diaries are written in the first person and always express thoughts and feelings.
  • Perspective: diaries are written to be private as the reader and writer are the same person. Confessional is a particular form of diary writing that reveals a secret.
  • Structure: diaries function as records of the day’s events and are largely chronological. Look out for flashbacks when the writer begins at the end, then goes back to explore how and why an event happened.
  • Register and tone: most diaries are written in an informal or semi-formal register, using language the writer feels comfortable with. Look out for language which reveals the attitude of the writer (tone): it is not uncommon for diaries to be thoughtful and reflective, scathing and caustic… or anything in between.
  • Colloquialism: the writer might write as if he or she is talking and may use figures of speech in an original or entertaining way.

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. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry:  Politics, Power and Justice
  • Global Issue: The Writing of History
  • Rationale:

According to the famous proverb: ‘history is written by the victors.’ In the aftermath of events such as a war, the way in which the event is written about or depicted can define the way in which it’s remembered. Over time, the ‘true’ events can be hidden behind the story of what happened. In watching this documentary, you might like to search for inherent bias, evaluate the impact of viewpoint on the way the story is told, explore the portrayal of the war in Afghanistan, and question whether the documentary presents a ‘true’ version of events on the ground.

possible literary pairings
  • Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – possibly the dominant stylistic device of this novel is the way it tells Yeong-hye’s story from three different perspectives, but never her own. You could make a very worthwhile talk by explaining how other perspectives lead your opinion of Yeong-hye’s decision to give up eating meat.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – you could investigate to what extent cultural difference is a cause of conflict in these two texts. You might also like to consider the way the audience’s perception of Shylock is led by the Christian characters (Act 3 Scene 3 is a good example of this).
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife – in this poetry collection, Duffy retells famous historical, literary and biblical stories from the point of view of the female participants, who were ignored or marginalised first time around. Choose a story where this reversal is particularly stark, such as Thetis or Pygmalion’s Bride.
  • John Keats’ poetry – in Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats looks at the images of people engraved on the urn and tries to imagine their lives. He asks where they came from and where they are going. Of course, the pot doesn’t answer. You might like to consider this poem alongside Ross Kemp’s documentary, and ask whether a record of the past “canst thus express a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.”
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – perspective is a crucial part of Kadare’s novel. If you only follow Gjorg’s – or Bessian’s – perspective, imagine what you might think about the kanun by the end of the story. Diana, and even Mark Ukacierra’s, perspectives are crucial if the reader is to come to a fuller understanding of the kanun, what it means and how it works in reality.
  • Shen Congwen’s Border Town – this novel elegantly reverses prejudices people may have about rural peasant folk in early 20th century China. While poor, Congwen’s characters are certainly not unhappy, or sick, or immoral. You can choose a passage that reveals the vitality of life in west Hunan province – a scene he brought to life with the skill of a master painter.
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M Coetzee – a perfect pairing for this Body of Work. Set in a remote desert settlement as well, one of the major themes of this novel is the writing of history. The magistrate is determined to write down his version of the events that come to pass in the town in order to counter the official version, such as in the reports written by Colonel Joll in chapter one.

Wider Reading and Research

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