Are newspapers supposed to be neutral? Or better still, are they allowed to have a leaning? And if so, how exactly should we define a “leaning”? To expect anything run by humans to be absolutely unbiased would be naïve. Humans are biased to some extent, we have likes and dislikes, we have preferences, and we express it — subconsciously or otherwise — in everything we do, say, or write. And as long as humans run a newspaper, there will be some bias and some preference for one idea over another that creeps into the editing, and eventually establishes itself as the voice and political stance of that publication. This is true as much of television as it is of print media, and the question in the end of it all is not whether media are biased, but how consumers need to ensure they are not buying into a political stance blindly.
The Washington Post is a classic example of this: articles in the newspaper backed the remain campaign in Britain (although the paper did not do so openly or officially — their front page was uncannily neutral) and, the same day, right after the entire country voted to leave the European Union with disastrous consequences, the Post published an article titled, “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it”. First of all, no, it was most certainly not the case if you thought that headline meant most Brits did not know what they were voting for, but, at first glance, it certainly makes the most valid case yet for a second referendum by terming the past one effectively pointless — the people did not know what they were looking for, and given another chance they would vote to remain in the EU. This is, first of all, a classic clickbait style headline intended to rope people in. The article itself is not stellar, and draws misdirected conclusions backed by poor numbers. (If you seek a rebuttal read the one published in The Telegraph a few days after the article in the Post, and others like it, gained traction on the internet.)
Buzzfeed made a list showing what several newspaper front pages said about Brexit. I read three among these regularly, two of which officially backed the remain campaign, much like I did myself, and one that claimed no backing — understandably, since it is an American publication. Such a stance is, from my experience, a little less common, although not absent, in America. Oftentimes, the backing is unofficial, but it is there nonetheless. However, just because a publication backs a certain ideology need not make them biased: there is a difference between support and bias. The former demands that the publication be open to calling out the follies of their side and appreciating the opposing side for a good and fair step they may take. This is healthy. Once again, the problem is not when backing (or leaning or support if you will) exists, but when bias exists and creeps into the editorial. Such news sources are best avoided (think Fox who, besides their heavy right-wing backing, was prompt to report that the UK voted to leave the UN).
Consider The Atlantic, which boldly claims to be “of no party of clique” — and stays true to this — but often carries an unofficial liberal stance in a lot of its writing. Harper’s is similarly liberal. Now liberal does not mean left-wing. This is actually an American misnomer because the Democrats are largely considered liberal and are the left-wing in American politics, while the Republicans are housed on the conservative, right-wing. This model is often employed to understand politics in other nations and erroneously at that. Alas, the situation is considerably more complex around the world. The issue could just be attributed to nuances and forgotten, but it does help to examine that if only to show what really qualifies as leaning — which was the primary question we started out with. There is some futility here too: for example, “liberalism” is of two types — social and fiscal — but this is just the tip of the iceberg and it really clarifies nothing. What one should see instead is the beliefs that define these forms of liberalism (or, on the other end of the spectrum, conservatism). Someone who calls for smaller role of governments, lot of civil liberty, and freer markets would be a “classical liberal”, and would actually be right-wing. Someone who calls for, say, gay marriage legalisation, decriminalisation of drugs etc. (two predominant issues in America today), would be a “social liberal”, which is what the US Democratic Party is. But then, muddying the waters for no reasons, the Americans call a combination of economic and social liberalism as “libertarianism”, a word which does not carry the same meaning as it does in Europe or Asia, and “liberalism” in America has nothing to do with small governments — neither of the two major American parties supports it — but instead is a relative term: the Democrats are more liberal from the Republican perspective and vice versa. From an international perspective, the Democrats (and this is my opinion at this point) would be right of centre, while the Republicans would be the true right-wing. (For the curious, I looked it up and there happens to be a little-known political party in America, called the “Libertarian Party”, which is left-wing but has almost no presence anywhere in the country.)
Leaving the US behind and coming to a more understandable international stage, it becomes clear that one should talk more in terms of the various main beliefs rather than collections of beliefs in terms of isms. It also helps to dilute things as far as possible: believers of small states, free markets, and traditional individual lifestyles are economic liberals and would be right of centre; believers of complete individual freedom with similarly complete governance over markets are social liberals and would be left of centre, but these have, of late, been calling themselves “progressives”. So a libertarian that America refers to would be a social liberal in, say, Europe, and a liberal in America would be an economic liberal in Europe, and so on. I will restrict myself from addressing this issue further because I already wrote about it last week while talking about the increasing popularity of the right-wing around the world. It would suffice to say that, over time, people have picked an assortment of these beliefs and the line between left and right is now merging into a spectrum of sorts.
The point here is that having and expressing any of these beliefs, while it may be termed as one’s “leaning” is not harmful and is, in fact, an unescapable part of being human. It is precisely this bias that I refer to as human, and it is precisely this bias that everyone and their editor has and is expressed in all publications. However, when bias moves from beliefs in how society should function to blindly following whatever a political party says or does, it gets dangerous. And it is this form of “leaning” that has absolutely no place in journalism. Considering that, in addition to everything discussed so far, any form of leaning must not be blind, must not twist facts, and must be open to change and to objectively weighing and accepting opposing viewpoints, we can probably shrink it all down to a single sentence: backing a stance is good, backing a political party is not.
Unfortunately, for a lot of publishers, falling subscriptions and, quite simply, the rise in an entire generation that takes journalism for granted and does not see the point in paying for it — because, for some strange reason, everything on the internet is expected to be free — means compromising just to stay alive. This includes, especially, native advertising, or advertising disguised like the medium that carries it — for example, as articles in newspapers. Something as critical as abortion — which I believe should be allowed at the woman’s discretion, and whose fictitious “health hazards” have no credible evidence in support — are not only advertised against in the form of fake news articles, but are also targeted especially to women who have visited abortion clinics or related locations, all using GPS. This actually happened as recently as two months ago, and caused understandable concern, besides violating basic ethics — nobody subscribed to their offensive, intolerant, ill-informed ads — and then hiding behind the banners of trusted publishers. This will not improve the credibility of the advertiser as much as it will destroy that of the publisher. Further, this extends to things from shoes to — as John Oliver pointed out on his talk show on HBO, Last week tonight — a seemingly innocent advertisement about how our energy needs are changing, courtesy of oil drilling company, Chevron, which has left a string of negative environmental impacts in its path, from Ecuador to Angola to Niger to Rio to Bangladesh to Poland to California, to name a few. There is, on the same page, all the way at the bottom, a disclaimer that the New York Times news and editorial staff had no role in the preparation of the advertisement. But it comes in too small a text size, too late, promptly after a reader has gone through the entire page.
Sponsored native advertising is also a form of bias for which the newspaper itself is not directly accountable, but still is partly responsible. This bias does not, of course, extend throughout the paper, but it does exist somewhere in it and harms the trust readers place in the publication. The underlying point here being one of skepticism: open backing of a stance leaves room for skepticism, which is healthy; blind support of a party does not. Similarly, an advertisement that looks obviously like an advertisement is a good thing because readers know how and when and if they have to be skeptical about it and take away any information they may need, which is not something seedy native ads propound. This form of bias, even though it may be introduced into the publication by a third-party, reflects on the newspaper. This is not unlike having regular advertisements (like this website does) which are clearly ads. What if I slyly inserted a paragraph in-between this article that was really an advert and then informed you about it in illegible text all the way at the end? First is a sense of betrayal of trust, followed by a sense of lost time invested into reading this article. The same is the case with newspapers which, quite simply, means that bias that is announced loudly and clearly before the fact is not at all problematic. Bias that sneaks into the main context unsurprisingly has no place there. And it is most certainly not the habit of a “publisher sharing its storytelling tools with a marketer” as The New York Times’ Meredith Levien puts it. Bias arising from an editorial stance on an issue is wholly different from that arising from vested interests, which is what advertising is all about, so claiming that the onus is on the reader makes little sense when the reader only ever subscribed to the views of the Times news and editorial boards, not, say, Chevron’s. At its best, native advertising is bias fro vested interests; at its worst, it is like an annoying e-mail newsletter you never subscribed to and can never unsubscribe from.
A hint of open-minded bias is good and I think it makes reading worthwhile, because plain, factual news delivery can get tedious. At the same time bias with vested interests, be it from a corporation or a political party or anything or anyone else, is nothing less than a danger to society.