By LARRY SMITH
IN THE wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency, fake news has become a trending topic and media bias is the hot issue of the day.
As Trump himself declared recently, “A lot of the media is actually the opposition party - they’re so biased.” He could easily have added his favourite word: “Sad.”
The range of alternative news sites on the internet has complicated matters for most. Russian dissident Garry Kasparov pointed out that, “it can take a high level of education to separate fact from fiction in the dense information jungle we face online.” And conservative American talk show host Charlie Sykes acknowledged that fake news during the US election had “polluted political discourse and clogged social media timelines … helping spread conspiracy theories and indulging the paranoia of the fever swamps”.
Sykes’ unfortunate conclusion is that any news deemed to be biased, embarrassing, annoying or negative can now simply be dismissed as fake.
As a journalist who trained in the early 1970s at the height of the profession’s prestige and influence, this is all deeply troubling. Widespread distrust of the professional media has serious consequences for democracy and public accountability. We know all too well here, that when our political leaders feel threatened by mass communication they do not control, the first thing they do is attack the messenger.
But if citizens are ever to hold those in power accountable, we have to rely on the press for information that we can use to judge their policies and behaviours.
When I was a university student in America, the push for civil rights, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the Watergate probes produced shining examples of journalism asserting itself against government power. The media were no longer conformist supporters of the establishment, as they had been in earlier times. By the 1970s professional journalists were questioning cultural values and exposing abuses of power. They played a big role in forcing the US to end the Vietnam conflict.
Arguably, Western journalism notched its greatest achievement with the investigation of President Richard Nixon’s crimes against the US constitution, which led to his 1974 resignation in disgrace. In America, this began to change with the deregulation of broadcasting in the 1980s. Cable television, and then the internet, spawned multiple new information outlets, and the resulting competitive pressures led to a decline in traditional, objective reporting and more focus on “soft” news and entertainment.
Radio talk shows proliferated, with hosts often expressing strong partisan views to draw polarised audiences. And alternative internet news sites often rejected the conventions of professional journalism in favour of a mix of highly charged opinion and news.
These changes were not all bad. Before 1993, for example, most Bahamians had to rely on two daily newspapers (The Guardian, founded in 1844, and The Tribune, founded in 1903) along with a rigorously state-controlled and censored broadcasting service. The Punch (from 1990) and the Bahama Journal (from 1985) were outliers.
When the first Ingraham administration deregulated broadcasting in the early 1990s, there was a similar explosion of radio stations and talk shows here. And the introduction of cable tv added more to the mix. Internet news sites came later, but today there are several online sources of Bahamian political propaganda and spin doctoring.
The most significant information development in recent years has been the rise of social media. Just about every Bahamian now has internet access and there are at least 210,000 Facebook subscribers - about 65 per cent of the population (according to Internet World Stats).
With more than 1.8 billion active users, Facebook is now the single most powerful player on the global media landscape. Again, this is not altogether a bad thing, but it does pose risks for democracy and public accountability that should be taken into account. For example, I use my public Facebook page as a sort of newsletter to responsibly air issues and developments. But many - either knowingly or unknowingly - push fake news and conspiracy theories, or engage in deliberate spin doctoring and personal attacks.
Paul Horner, an acknowledged author of online fake news articles in the US, described this trend in a recent interview: “Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore - I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Lest you assume this is a biased comment, Horner is no leftist. One of his biggest fake stories was about Barack Obama invalidating the election results - a post that got over 250,000 Facebook shares. Meanwhile, Trump asserts that the ‘real’ fake news emanates from major media outlets that are trying to hold his administration to account. And there are many who agree with him as a matter of course.
Facebook has conceded that its hands-off approach to setting news standards was “wrong”. It will now place warning labels on fake stories, prevent advertising on deceptive sites and work with third-party fact checkers to try and address the problem.
According to Georgetown University professor Joanathan Ladd, “Media distrust is consequential. It changes the way people acquire information and form political preferences, and leads to substantial information loss among the mass public. They increasingly seek out partisan news sources that confirm their pre-existing views.”
He argues that a more fragmented, less professionalised media landscape has some value. But there should be a balance, so that the public retains enough confidence in the institutional press to use information to hold government accountable. “Extreme versions of either a centralised, homogenous, unchallenged, and trusted news media establishment or a fragmented, partisan, sensationalist media are both undesirable,” he wrote in his recent book, ‘Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters’.
To achieve this balance, Ladd suggests more reliance on public media outlets that are insulated from market pressures, like PBS in the US or the BBC in Britain. This is not the same as what we have here in the form of ZNS, which is tightly controlled and therefore useless as a source of real information. In the last Ingraham administration there was talk about converting ZNS into a truly autonomous public broadcaster - I was on the board that tried to get this done. But the politicians would not relinquish control; it seems they had no intention of doing so from the break. So ZNS lumbers along as a massive taxpayer-subsidised propaganda and perks machine, no matter who is in power.
The bottom line is: there can be incompetence, errors and misreporting; there can be conformist views and even outright fabrication, but such deficiencies do not amount to a giant media conspiracy. And simply embracing fake news or extreme partisan rhetoric is not the right response.
Let’s remember that a large segment of opinion in the 1970s accused Big Media of seeking to bring down the Nixon presidency as part of a political plot. And it is a common theme of Bahamian office holders that journalists conspire against both them and the state.
One could go back and forth cherrypicking examples from the left and right - or almost any other viewpoint you wish to start from - to support a charge of media bias. But content analyses looking for systematic patterns are unable to find definitive evidence. “Perhaps the most crucial determinant of perceptions of bias in the news,” according to researchers Matthew Nisbet, of Northeastern University, and Lauren Feldman, of Rutgers, “is the extent to which news coverage is seen as disagreeing with one’s own views. In a range of studies, when news audiences who hew to opposing sides on an issue are given the same news coverage of the topic to evaluate, both view this identical coverage as biased in favour of the other side … and thus potentially reject useful information.”
The conventional wisdom (often spurred by those in power) is that Bahamian media are politically biased and therefore “unpatriotic”. While no in-depth studies have been done on this, basic research at the College of the Bahamas has turned up some preliminary insights. Students analysed key words in front-page Guardian and Tribune stories published around the 2012 general election and the subsequent North Abaco by-election. “No evidence of bias was found in the bodies of the stories,” sociology professor Nicolette Bethel told me.
These studies looked only at the use of certain words, and Bethel says further research is needed using different criteria - such as story placement, headlines, selective coverage, photography or editorials.
Nevertheless, comparisons with American texts show that far more quotes are used in Bahamian newspaper reporting. And frequent use of the adjective “said” indicates that local journalists generally repeat what others have to say.
Naturally, this differs from a newspaper’s editorial stance, or the views of its publisher, or the contributions of columnists. But it is a clear fact that professional journalism has a structured process that works in favour of neutrality and accuracy.
Just as in any other field, the media can make mistakes and lean one way or another editorially. But few would disagree that there is a huge difference in the quality and reliability of the information presented by institutional media compared to alternative news sources.
To take an obvious example, simply compare the information on a site like Bahamas Press or Bahamas News Ma Bey with that presented by The Guardian and Tribune. Any reasonable observer would concede that the online stories are distorted and sensationalised at the expense of accuracy. It is not all fake, but if you are familiar with Bahamian politics you should be able to discern the key messages that these propaganda sites seek to convey.
Screaming that The Tribune or The Guardian (or their leading journalists) are biased against the party in power does not make it so.
In fact, the endless vilification of the news media by politicians and others serves to diminish the power of an independent press. And this in turn damages our democracy by poisoning the debate to the point where nobody knows what to believe.
This is not to say that efforts to improve political reporting and editorial oversight should not be made. Bias exists in every decision we make. So perhaps the best advice is to read critically, seek out a range of views, consider the source, discount obvious propaganda, and fact-check wherever possible.
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