Helpful Hint: Nobody reading my own newspaper columns has ever had to waste any time working out from which side of the political divide I draw my inspiration. Would we be better or worse off if all journalists' work was so clearly identified?
IF YOU’RE READING this column you know already that it’s coming to you “From the Left”. You are, therefore, free to absorb its contents with a rare foreknowledge of its author’s ideological predispositions.
But how often can you say as much? How many of the stories, columns and feature articles published every day carry such a useful consumer warning? And how easy is it, Dear Reader, in the absence of such a warning, to discern how those stories, columns and feature articles have been put together and why?
Because, make no mistake, everything you read, watch and listen to, every newspaper article, television programme and radio broadcast, has been carefully constructed by an individual, or individuals, working consciously, or unconsciously, from well-established ideological predispositions.
The information a journalist decides to include in a story is very often less important than the information he or she decides to leave out. Indeed, this is almost always the case. Because in any “newsworthy” event there will always be many more details and contributory causes than a journalist’s employers could ever possess either the time or the space to relate.
A few mornings ago, for example, I listened to a correspondent reporting on the referenda on regional autonomy that had just taken place in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. His report concentrated on irregularities in the way the referenda were conducted. He then linked these irregularities to statements from European Union and United States officials in which the “Russian-backed separatists’” referenda were angrily condemned as “illegal”.
Another journalist, reporting from the same country, might just as easily have started her report by reiterating the illegal status of the government in Kiev. She could have pointed to the presence of the overtly fascist political formations within the Western-backed regime and linked this to the determination of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers to protect themselves by voting in hastily organised referenda for regional autonomy. After all, these so-called “separatists” are living in territory which had, up until 1922, been part of Russia-proper.
Hero Or Villain? It depends on which facts journalists choose to put into their stories about the crisis in Ukraine, and which they decide to leave out.
What made the media outlet I was listening to choose the first report over the second? Both are constructed out of facts which, thanks to Google and Wikipedia, are readily checkable. And yet, the Ukraine which emerges from the way these facts are either included or excluded differs wildly. In the first report the referenda symbolise illegal Russian-backed separatism. In the second, the referenda represent East Ukraine’s determination to protect itself from Western-backed fascists in Kiev. In the end, it probably came down to the news editor’s ideological predispositions.
Or, alternatively, the news editor made a rational assessment of the way his bosses would react to his broadcasting the second report, and opted for the first. Such self-censorship is extremely common, reflecting the fact that individuals are not the only things with ideological predispositions – institutions have them too. And if you would discover the political direction of an institution’s bias, just find out who pays the bills.
In the light of the recent report on political bias released by Television New Zealand, the question of a journalist’s ideological predispositions has acquired an unusual moral salience.
Shane Taurima: Conflict of interest?
Mr Shane Taurima was forced to resign from his job at TVNZ because he allegedly failed to adequately separate his political ambitions from his statutory obligations, as a public broadcaster, to be politically neutral and only broadcast news and current affairs that is fair and balanced. TVNZ plans to avoid any future suggestion of political partiality by requiring its news and current affairs staff to declare and relinquish any existing ties and/or affiliations to political parties.
But, surely, this can only be regarded as a mixed blessing? At least an open declaration by all TVNZ journalists of their ideological predispositions would allow viewers to judge their output with a greater understanding of what kinds of facts they are more likely to put into, and leave out of, their stories. Just like the readers of this column, TVNZ’s viewers would then be able to calculate an appropriate political discount.
The Law may require our public broadcaster to be fair and balanced, but the Law can’t be there to witness what goes into or gets left out of everything we see.
Would we not be better served if all journalists were required to identify themselves as coming “From the Left’ or “From the Right”?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 May 2014.