Bias in journalism: learning to live with it

In times of conflict, bias in journalism is a way to dismiss news and views that people disagree with. Here’s a different way to think about things.

Last year, I joined a WhatsApp group for a political movement called Rise Mzansi.

Like many South Africans, I am thinking hard about who to vote for in our national elections later in 2024. Rise Mzansi is a new player, with some interesting ways of thinking about politics (it was this article in the Daily Maverick that piqued my interest). 

The WhatsApp group is, of course, largely a vehicle for people from Rise Mzansi to raise awareness, and to spread their message. It’s also a place for angry and tense discussions, often about the war in Gaza. And often in those angry discussions, someone will quote one or other news outlet, and say that the publication or the people who work for it are biased. The thought behind that is that the publication is not to be trusted because it is serving the interests of one or other person/faction/ideology with which the accuser disagrees. 

Well, doh! Journalists and publications are biased, and always have been.

Any publication is made by people, who have human thoughts and emotions and allegiances and opinions. In the way of humans, journalists will choose (if they can) to work for a publication that they think represents those interests and where they will mix with a group of people who feel familiar and aligned to them.

To give an example which is removed from the heated emotions of life in the 2020s, I applied to work at the Cape Times in the 1980s because it was widely recognized as an anti-apartheid government publication, and I was a supporter of that. (The Cape Times is remembered for publishing an interview with the then-banned leader of the African National Congress Oliver Tambo).

At the time, if you were a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, you approved of the Cape Times. If you were a government supporter, you thought the Cape Times was biased.

But here’s the thing. Even though I worked for such a publication, and had those opinions and feelings in common with my colleagues, we did not consciously report things incorrectly. We did not make things up in support of our opinions. We were expected to get comment from “the other side” – so if police were accused of brutality, we knew we had to ask the police for comment. If not, the person on the newsdesk (i.e. your boss) would say: FFS, phone Attie van Wyk (the spokesperson at the time) and get comment.

So yes, journalists will see the world through a particular prism. And yes they might be inclined to report in a way that skews the news.

An example of bias at work

In those distant days, a Cape Times reporter might see police chasing a group of people, and think of it as: “Police chase courageous activists”. A government-supporting reporter might see that as: “Police chase rioters and criminals”. 

But the facts they were reporting would be based on reality, and would be subject to checks and balances at their publication. In both those cases, the ultimate headline would probably have been: “Police chase group of people”. 

Where does all this leave us in 2024?

Journalism as represented by a printed newspaper is not the institution it used to be. But there are still television channels and news websites that keep the flame alive. These things still hold true:

• The job of a journalist is to be true to their own beliefs, and yet to strive to report the news as fairly and as honestly as they can.

• The job of a news publication is to be true to its convictions, but to portray the world in as fair a way as it can.

• And the job of a reader is to be aware of their own biases! If you follow a publication because it portrays a conflict or events in ways that sync completely with your own views, then be aware that you are doing that. And make it your job to seek out publications that present another side as often as you can.

Also, be aware that there are publications that are deliberately distorting the truth, and that there is content on social media that is simply not true. It’s your job as a citizen of the digital world to keep your wits about you. Because news does not exist in a vacuum: it is a two-way relationship. And in any relationship, work is needed on both sides.


What journalists do (part one): the narrowing of the eyes | Safe Hands

What journalists do (part two): the checking of the facts

Step-by-step: How to tell if a news article is reliable

Main picture: Brad Weaver, Unsplash

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