Tilting at windmills

In 2008, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under the leadership of its Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklós Haraszti, brought out ‘The Media Self-Regulation Guidebook’, which over the years has become a tool for most news ombudsmen to deal with specific complaints. Mr. Haraszti has an excellent definition for self-regulation. He wrote: “Media self-regulation is a joint endeavour by media professionals to set up voluntary editorial guidelines and abide by them in a learning process open to the public. By doing so, the independent media accept their share of responsibility for the quality of public discourse in the nation, while fully preserving their editorial autonomy in shaping it.”

I have read several manuals on media regulations as well as various codes of ethics that guide journalists. This rich oeuvre of literature dealing with media regulations aimed at balancing rights and responsibilities has concrete ideas to handle and resolve complaints on issues such as breach of privacy, inaccuracy, non-protection of vulnerable persons, discrimination, fairness, balance, good taste, use of anonymous sources, invasion of privacy, plagiarism, and conflicts of interest. The role of a self-regulatory mechanism is to ensure that the news organisation adheres to its code of ethics or editorial values.

Measuring bias

In this context, it is evident that there is no universally accepted yardstick to measure ‘bias in media’ coverage. An ombudsman adjudicates on issues based on facts and the core values of journalism. If a news report is editorialised or packed with comments, then it is fairly easy to point out the breach. However, if there are complaints of bias against opinion articles, editorials and analytical pieces, then it becomes a conflict of two views. There seems to be no common ground to address this vexatious question of bias in our polarised reality. In earlier columns, I dealt with the idea of ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘confirmation bias’ in an age of technological disruption, yet they failed to address the question of bias in a language that was acceptable to all.

For instance, S. Pushpavanam, a reader from Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, considered the editorial “Ill-advised move” (September 16), which was on the threat of contempt proceedings against actor Suriya’s observation on NEET, a media excess. He contended that the sentence in the editorial, “No reasonable person who reads Mr. Suriya’s statement would construe it as contempt of court”, an attempt to brand all other opinions as unreasonable. He was unhappy with the newspaper’s stand on the contempt proceeding against advocate Prashant Bhushan. He drew our attention to another editorial, “Something rotten” (September 11), on actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and social prejudices. The editorial had said that sections of the media had “handed out instant verdicts in the newsroom”. He wondered how The Hindu’s editorial on judicial contempt was different from these sections of the media which the newspaper criticised. The difference is in the distinction between news and views. In The Hindu, all news is reported without fear or favour. But the editorial is a considered opinion of the newspaper, and readers are free to disagree with it.

A polarised environment

The latest study by the ‘Trust, Media and Democracy’ research programme of the Gallup and Knight Foundation gives us some pointers to understand bias. It’s 2018 report found out that “while Americans valued the role of the news media as an important institution in a free society, they did not believe it was fulfilling its democratic roles well.” Its recently released 2020 study documents many issues that contribute to the idea of media bias among citizens. The vast majority (84%) of Americans believe that the media is vital for democracy. At the same time, nearly half (49%) of all Americans think the media is very biased. Most importantly, the survey pointed out that distrust of the media runs along partisan lines, where nearly 71% of Republicans have an unfavourable view of the media compared to only 22% of Democrats. Also, more Americans (69%) say they are concerned about bias in the news other people are getting than say they worry about their own news being biased (29%).

I can safely say that the polarised environment is not restricted to the U.S., but has a debilitating and corrosive presence in India too.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 2:04:19 AM |

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