And is it really a problem?
“All media carries the biases of the people who are creating it… everything has some bias, there is no perfectly objective reporting.”
Dr. Ethan Plaut is a communications professor at the University of Auckland, and his words reflect commonly held wisdom in the media industry—perfectly objective stances do not exist. How could they, when the media is an industry made up of people with lived experiences, in this (pardon my French) clusterfuck of a post-colonial, late-capitalist, patriarchal landscape?
So, the short answer to the titular question is: yes, media bias exists. But not in the way you might think of when you hear the phrase “media bias”. And it turns out answering the second question is a little more complicated.
To start with: what exactly is media bias? Dr. Plaut explains:
“People often think of media bias as being either to the left or to the right. And I think that’s way too simplistic…. If anything, I think mainstream news media tends to have a pretty strong bias to the centre.”
Dr. Plaut points out that mainstream outlets will privilege centre-left or centre-right views. Far-left and far-right views aren’t often in mainstream news, unless they’re being presented as extremist—take the anti-mandate movement as a recent example. In that sense, it could be argued that New Zealand’s media landscape is “balanced”, at least, politically. A less kind word would be “centrist”.
In an opinion piece written for The Spinoff, Hal Crawford, a journalist with primarily overseas experience, says he believes the New Zealand media is generally centrist because of market forces. He contrasts our media with Australian media; he believes Australian outlets are more likely to be obviously partisan.
“Where media markets are dominated by a single player, they tend to be centrist…. You get the biggest possible audience in the middle of the political and stylistic bell-curve,” writes Crawford. And it’s true, the New Zealand media is dominated by a few key players: Stuff, NZME and now the giant RNZ-TVNZ merger, dubbed “Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media”.
Although some may see a centrist media as ideal, it could also be argued that centrism isn’t equivalent to being non-partisan. Yet political neutrality is an explicit goal in the mainstream New Zealand media. Stuff’s editorial code states “Stuff is politically non-partisan… Journalists should guard against bias”. NZME, who owns NZHerald among other publications, states “We must ensure we are impartial”. But if the media clearly isn’t totally impartial, does that mean we’re breaching our own standards? Well, not really.
“You can simultaneously recognizse that there’s no such thing as perfect objectivity, but also think that it’s a useful ideal to strive for in your reporting… some kind of ideals of balance and accuracy still matter,” explains Dr. Plaut.
In other words, yes, it’s possible to have both a “media bias” and a trustworthy, accurate, and balanced news industry. Although on the surface this sounds like a contradiction, it’s not actually a radical idea. Dr. Plaut points out that bias is even built into some conceptions of the media industry.
“We have this idea of the oppositional press, the fourth estate working to keep the government honest, and to inform people about the government’s successes, but especially their failures,” says Dr. Plaut. This could be construed as a bias against the government, yet the media is functioning exactly as it’s meant to in this scenario.
Additionally, recent years have seen an increasing discussion around the shortfalls of the objective ideal. There’s an increasing sentiment that being explicit about, or understanding biases in reporting may actually be more beneficial than a claim of staunch objectivity. In an opinion written for the Guardian in 2019, entitled ‘Media bias is OK—if it’s honest’ columnist Nathan Robinson notes that “Paradoxically, rebuilding trust requires embracing bias. Not embracing untruthfulness, but admitting your politics so that both writer and audience can be critical.”
Robinson’s idea isn’t exactly radical either. Dr. Plaut explains that many countries operate on a “partisan press” model, where newspapers are explicitly allied with political parties. Educated people are simply expected to read many news-sources to understand the different perspectives at play.
“The idea that a reputable news organisation has to be coldly objective is not the only solution,” adds Dr. Plaut.
“[The ideal of objectivity] in some ways has served democracy well, and in some ways it has served [democracy] very poorly.
“Oftentimes, the ‘objective’ perspective has been, you know, very white, very male, very centrist… it has its own biases too.”
Ultimately, this discussion has no satisfying conclusion. Yes, media bias exists, but not in the way that rabid Trump supporters and internet trolls would have you believe. It’s not always negative, and it’s not always positive—in many ways media bias is a neutral fact.
What’s unfortunate is the way the term “media bias” has been weaponised to push radical agendas. It has been used as a catch-all term to alienate and disenfranchise people from engaging with mainstream news sources, and that can be particularly insidious. In Aotearoa, we’re lucky to have a functional and healthy media industry that enjoys one of the highest trust ratings in the world. Unfortunately, according to a report released by AUT last year, that trust still couldn’t be described as good—less than half of New Zealanders “trusted news in general”, moving from 53% to 48% from 2020 – 2021.
Ultimately, Dr. Plaut believes that “system- level reform is absolutely necessary… If we want media we can trust, we need to fund that media”. Because media bias doesn’t just operate on an individual level, Dr. Plaut points out. It’s not only a reporter or editors’ views that influence angles in a story, bias also operates systemically: which articles and issues make it to readers? Which points of view are promoted? What stories are the most profitable? In the past, this sort of systemic bias in the media has operated via omission or placement—which articles are front-page, and which are relegated to the back? Which are published at all? In the modern age, the question becomes intertwined with our social media habits. As our economy becomes increasingly digital, and media industries become increasingly desperate for funds, Dr. Plaut questions whether the real media bias is moving toward “holding attention… giving people whatever will keep them online?
“That worries me as much as anything else.”
The way we talk about media bias, and how we engage with the media landscape in the digital age, is evidently more important than ever. And although there are no straightforward answers, it seems the most important thing we can do is to stay engaged, and pay attention to what we pay attention to. As an industry, the media responds first and foremost to its audience. If we want media transparency and fairness, we, the audience, have to advocate for a system that supports that.
As the old saying goes: who watches the watchdog? Well, as it turns out—we do.