Biases in Journalism and in History

28/12/2019

I have written before about E. H. Carr’s ideas of the “historian and his facts”, of how history can never be “objective” because there are always things that will influence even the most aware observers. I would put forward that this concept also applies to journalists, who are, in a sense, historians of the moment in which they report.

Bias in the media is much easier to discern than bias in history is, not least because history can be romanticised and moulded much easier. We have faith in “experts” that give works of history weight, relying on fact and fact alone to reach its conclusions. In reality, history is an incredibly shaky field, much like journalism, filled with holes, omissions, and agendas. As Carr suggests, not only should we study history, but it is worth understanding the historian and the society in which the historian took their influences.

My simple example, using Carr’s method, is comparing a history of the Middle East from the perspective of a late 1800’s – early 1900’s British Christian missionary to that of an Arab nationalist in the 1950’s or 60’s. Whilst both versions of history will be vastly different, they would be entirely valid historical works – within context. Both, no doubt, will be riddled with biases, whether intended or not, and should be viewed as such. The missionary will paint a much bleaker picture as his would be from the perspective of an Empire losing control, whereas the Arab nationalist will boost his region’s standing in a global world.

Neither would be wrong, pending fabrications, which can and do happen, but if read in isolation they may not present a decent depiction. If you understand the biases of the historian, then you can begin to see where there may be flaws in their works. Even if what they have written is entirely factual and complemented with evidence, it should still be questioned. This is not to discount all historical works, but simply a prompt to apply critical thinking when reading them. Because while it may be factual and propped up with the record to back it, what have they left out? Which voices got mentioned, and which ones were ignored?

A good historian may try their best to include as much as they can to give a well-rounded account, but this by no means guarantees they’ll succeed – I would say there is no such thing as a perfect historian.

The above applies to the field of journalism. What is journalism if not the recording, recounting, and analysis of the history that is unfolding in front of us right now? The journalist’s work is also part of the future historian’s pickings, being a part of the dialogue between the past, present, and future. As such, it would be folly to read the work of a journalist or media outlet without first having studied them, at least to some extent.

Arguably, more people would believe that segments of the media are biased than they would believe that certain historical narratives are biased, for two reasons. The first is simply because it is likely the media outlets they look to tell them that they are – the term fake news is used from all sides, and all of them have at least some merit to the accusation, some a bit more than others. Second, the majority of people tend to be stubborn about what they know to be true history. Few are open to the idea that what they know is in fact wrong, and Australia’s dark history is a useful example for that. Our colonial history is so whitewashed, the biases so engrained in the national memory, that you can see some wretched comments in response to anyone who dares challenge the façade of exceptionalism.

Journalists, however, in modern times are much easier targets. Their facts, true or fabricated, are rejected or consumed not solely on their validity, but also on their compliance to the reader’s own narrative. To use a safe example, the Murdoch press is clearly nonsense drivel that seeps into a scary percentage of our media coverage. I say safe because the Murdoch narrative is almost always fabricated or purely opinion, with little of substance being produced. With the context of Murdoch’s media empire and his political dealings and partnerships, critical thinking would flag it as biased and dangerous. Many do not, however, possess that context or skill.

Hence, we end up with a large portion of the population who absorb Sky or Fox News as doctrine, believing that all other outlets are the ones with an agenda. But when you look at their coverage, you should ask the same questions posed above for historians: what biases do they have? Which voices have the included or omitted? Which facts are given more credence, and others less so?

Obviously, one should extend this to all news outlets, even ones they trust. I am a fan of the US site Counter Punch, but I have not always agreed with every piece that they have posted. They are infinitely better than Fox, so it is perhaps unfair and even insulting to use them in such a comparison, but that only serves to prove my point – no matter how trusted the source, they should always be challenged and questioned critically. As easy as it is to pick up biases in media reporting, it is almost as easy to confirm or conclude that some articles and analyses are sound.

You can’t remove an article from its author or the wider society and context in which the author wrote it, just as you can’t remove a historic work from the author and their society, context, and time period in which they wrote it. I hope what I have written makes sense, but the main point to take from this is that you should always be critical of what you read. As a quote from a movie (the name eludes me) says, there are three stories – yours, mine, and the truth.

 

Liked this? Read my What is History?: A Reflection series HERE

Previous piece: What War on Christmas?

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