The Canberra Press Gallery will decide who governs this country...

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Sunday, 30 May 2010 20:56 by HillbillySkeleton

And the manner by which they come to power.

Initially, this blog was going to be a bit of a rant about the Australian Federal Press Gallery, and press galleries in general, hot on the heels of the scathing article in the May 15 edition of The Weekend Australian, Canberra gallery turns on an ADHD prime minister who has lost his way by Christine Wallace, attacking the Prime Minister for his personal style, especially as it relates to his personality and his interpersonal relationships with members of the Canberra Press Gallery, and the Adam Walters' Channel 7 exposé of the private life of David Campbell, the former NSW Transport Minister. How these people have the temerity to arrogate unto themselves the power to decide what the political narrative will be for the country, and who should be leading us, is a situation which regularly leaves me dumbstruck. However, when I started doing a bit of research into the theory which would underpin this piece, I came to the conclusion that, whilst I would encourage you all to contribute your thoughts about how our Press Gallery members themselves show the adverse signs of any one of a number of  human frailties which manifests in their work, just like any other group of Alphas, just like any Prime Minister, really; I thought no, instead of that I would like to lead an initial, rational discussion about what drives political journalists to behave the way they do and write the things they do for our consumption.

So I propose to outline the techniques that they use such that we may become better informed consumers of their contributions to the political debate in this country, especially in the run-up to the federal election. Forewarned is forearmed, in my book.

Also, as Mr Denmore over at Larvatus Prodeo has this week done a sterling job of deconstructing our political journalists' motivations and 'shifts in the media and journo-sphere', I thus searched for a different perspective. So, I have chosen to present a hopefully balanced and informative look at the broad nature of political journalism, as I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities in the near future as the temperature rises, in the Press Gallery, in the electorate, and in the blogosphere, to have a more emotively-based dig at the self-important 'oracles' that sit in Australia's Federal Press Gallery, thinking they know what is best for all of us to believe about the Australian political scene and our politicians. Their argument, of course, for this 'right' would revolve around their proximity to the 'action', and their deep engagement in the scene over many long years in Canberra, or wherever. However, I would put it to you that maybe that's the problem. Which goes to the title of this piece. Nevertheless, I will be explanatory first, and establish the framework by which we might be able to go forward and judge them objectively and effectively into the future.

So here goes...

Media Political Bias
There is no such thing as an objective point of view.

No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated historically, politically, economically, and socially adjacent to each other. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the collective influences of the entire context of a message.

Politicians are certainly biased and overtly so. They belong to parties and espouse policies and ideologies. And while they may think their individual ideologies are simply common sense, they understand that they speak from political positions.

Journalists, too, speak from political positions but usually not overtly so. The journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are strong influences on the profession. But journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy. Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: 1) fairness to those concerned with the news and 2) a professional process of information gathering that seeks fairness, completeness and accuracy. As we all know, the ethical heights journalists set for themselves are not always reached. Especially these days when, as others such as Mr Denmore have observed, the modern political journalist is virtually shackled to their desk as they struggle to meet their deadlines, and need to factor in input from new media such as Twitter and TV and parliamentary proceedings. Is it any wonder, they say, that wearing out shoe leather in the hard slog of investigative journalism falls by the wayside, and Press Releases prepared by ever-ready media advisers from one party or another, come to be relied upon as grist for their daily mill? But, all in all, like politics, it is an honourable profession, practised, for the most part, by people trying to do the right thing.

In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice.

I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

For citizens and information consumers (which are one and the same today), it is important to develop the skill of detecting bias. Remember: Bias does not suggest that a message is false or unfair.

Critical questions for detecting bias
1. What is the author's socio-political position? With what social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?

2. Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the message?

3. Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? What is the bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?

4. What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the data, and are the data being presented fully?

5. How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting arguments?

6. If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views characterised? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?

Bias in the news media
Is the news media biased toward progressives? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence – anecdotal and otherwise – to ‘prove’ media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural biases of journalism as a professional practice.  A more accepted, and perhaps more accurate term, instead of 'bias', would be ‘frame’. These are some of the professional frames that structure what journalists can see and how they can present what they see.

Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses. As such, they must deliver a good product to their customers to make a profit. The customers of the news media are advertisers. The most important product the news media delivers to its customers is readers or viewers. Good is defined in numbers and quality of readers or viewers. The news media are biased toward conflict (cf. bad news and narrative biases below) because conflict draws readers and viewers. Harmony is boring.

Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate. News is what's new and fresh. To be immediate and fresh, the news must be ever-changing even when there is little news to cover.

Visual bias: Television (and, increasingly, newspapers) are biased toward visual depictions of news. Television is nothing without pictures. Legitimate news that has no visual angle is likely to get little attention. Much of what is important in politics – policy – cannot be photographed.

Bad news bias: Good news is boring (and probably does not photograph well, either). This bias makes the world look like a more dangerous place than it really is. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far more negative than they really are.

Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of ‘stories’ that must have a beginning, middle, and end – in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives – set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.

Status quo bias: The news media believe ‘the system works’.  This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored. They go with the flow and analyse that.

Fairness bias: No, this is not an oxymoron. Ethical journalistic practice demands that reporters and editors be fair. In the news product this bias manifests as a contention between/among political actors (cf. narrative bias above). Whenever one faction or politician does something or says something newsworthy, the press is compelled by this bias to get a reaction from an opposing camp. This creates the illusion that the game of politics is always contentious and never cooperative. This bias can also create situations in which one faction appears to be attacked by the press. For example, politician A announces some positive accomplishment followed by the press seeking a negative comment from politician B. The point is not to disparage politician A, but to be fair to politician B. When politician A is a conservative, this practice by the press thus appears to be liberal bias, that is, the press manifesting their liberal tendencies by seeking out comment from politician B that disparages politician A's conservative achievement; and vice versa, of course. I would add though that the motivation for doing this in some instances is questionable when you read how it has then been used by the journalist.

Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time. News organisations compete for market share and reader/viewer attention. And the 24-hour news cycle – driven by the immediacy of television and the internet – creates a situation in which the job of competing never comes to a rest. Add financial pressures to this mix – the general desire of media groups for profit margins that exceed what's ‘normal’ in many other industries – and you create a bias toward information that can be obtained quickly, easily and inexpensively. Need an expert/official quote (status quo bias) to balance (fairness bias) a story (narrative bias)? Who can you get on the phone fast? Who is always ready with a quote and always willing to speak (i.e. say what you need them to say to balance the story)? Who sent a press release recently? Much of deadline decision making comes down to gathering information that is readily available from sources that are well known.

Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often insert themselves into the stories they cover. This happens most often in terms of proximity, i.e. to the locus of unfolding events or within the orbit of powerful political and civic actors. This bias helps journalists establish and maintain a cultural identity as knowledgeable insiders (although many journalists reject the notion that follows from this – that they are players in the game and not merely observers).  News promos with stirring music and heroic pictures of individual reporters create the aura of omnipresence and omnipotence.

Blatant political bias: This is the most contentious framework 'bias' of all. It is one that I wrestled with defining specifically because I could not decide, as I have never spoken to any of the protagonists about it, how fully invested politically are some journalists in defining the stories they write based upon their own political prejudices? It is probably fair to say that some are guilty of this bias. Yet others may only be playing to the audience that the proprietor instructs them to write for.

Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is "never innocent." By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically.

False assumptions by journalists, rather than overt politicking, help create the political bias news consumers often detect in news reporting. A conservative will quite naturally assert a conservative world view by using concepts in ways comfortable to conservatives. The same goes for progressive journalists communicating with their 'consumers'.

So, whilst it might seem like I have morphed into an apologist for some of the most egregious violators of the public's trust that exist in Australian political journalism, I would rather see what I have put before you today as my considered analysis of the possible motivations behind why they do what they do, good and bad. We all know who 'they' are, and, I guess, they all have mortgages and school fees to pay, like you and me. Thus, while I may not agree with what they say, I will defend to the death their right to say it. And, it doesn't make what they sometimes do correct, but I can now understand better why they might do it.

So is the Canberra Press Gallery really attempting to determine who will govern this country and the manner by which they come to power?

What do you think?