How Not To Talk About Media Bias


On Friday, the ABC’s The Drum published a letter from former Prime Minister Paul Keating. In the letter, Keating claims that the anchor of ABC’s 7.30, Chris Uhlmann is not a competent political journalist:

"His technique is to have the pap set question to hand. And as the interviewee responds, he speaks over the top of them to demonstrate an aggressive credential. This is broadly to conceal the fact that he is unable to follow an answer in a discursive way — to grow the conversation in a manner that is both informative and elucidatory."

Bruce Belsham, Head of ABC Current Affairs, responded to the article in an editor’s note, claiming that Keating’s letter was "a personal and unreasonable assault on one of this country’s best political journalists and interviewers". Defending Uhlmann as a widely respected journalist, Belsham wrote:

"I’ve just re-watched the interview. Chris’s tone throughout was respectful but probing, the appropriate tone for a political interviewer doing what political interviewers have always done — acting devil’s advocate for a public seeking to better understand its leaders."

Last year, GetUp! found itself in a media storm when their Suggest a Campaign tool (now defunct) was used to vent frustrations about rightwing bias on the ABC (although GetUp! never endorsed the campaign).

Users of the Suggest a Campaign tool targeted Uhlmann who, in interviews with Senator Bob Brown and Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was perceived to be "childish" and "aggressively interruptive".

Although Keating and the Suggest a Campaign critics accuse Uhlmann of different things (a lack of competence on the one hand and pervasive bias on the other), both appeal to their subjective impressions about Uhlmann’s behaviour and demeanour. When Keating asserts that Uhlmann’s technique is "limited to loaded set questions invariably posed in an accusatory tone", he leaves himself vulnerable to Belsham’s rebuttal: "I’ve just re-watched the interview. Chris’s tone throughout was respectful but probing".

Forget the people involved and what we think of Chris Uhlmann’s journalism. The criticisms highlight contemporary issues with how we discuss media issues, particularly the difficulty discussing issues of bias, balance, and fairness.

The ABC Code of Practice outlines its commitment to impartiality while acknowledging the problem of subjectivity:

"Judgements about whether impartiality was achieved in any given circumstances can vary among individuals according to their personal and subjective view of any given matter of contention. Acknowledging this fact of life does not change the ABC’s obligation to apply its impartiality standard as objectively as possible. In doing so, the ABC is guided by these hallmarks of impartiality:

  • a balance that follows the weight of evidence;
  • fair treatment;
  • open-mindedness; and
  • opportunities over time for principal relevant perspectives on matters of contention to be expressed."

Since the beginning of 2012 there have been three complaints about 7.30 by ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs: in January, the show claimed that NSW has 20 per cent of the world’s poker machines (it has 3.6 per cent); in March, it showed distressing images without giving sufficient warning; and, in April, the show inaccurately stated that sheets of fire-proof magnesium oxide were not available in Australia.

After all the chest-thumping and huffing and puffing about bias at the ABC, those are the three complaints that have been upheld, and the ABC’s complaints process is hardly substandard.

The Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, was recently interviewed by Rod Tiffen, Emeritus Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, for The Conversation. Discussing attacks on the ABC, Scott noted:

"There are a few critics who are quite carping and consistent. I’m not sure we can do anything to appease them, and you’ve just got to be realistic on that. One of the things I think I’ve learnt about bias is that the audience member brings so much to this bias conversation.

We’d get these audience logs after Kerry O’Brien had done a vigorous or torrid interview and there’d be 200 phone calls, a hundred saying: ‘How dare Kerry O’Brien be so tough and rude to that political guest?’ and the other hundred saying: "Why has Kerry O’Brien gone soft? Why won’t he go hard?" and you realise that the audience is bringing this kind of perspective."

That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts to find impartial evidence. In 2009, then Professor of Economics (now federal ALP parliamentarian) Andrew Leigh co-authored a paper which tried to demonstrate "media slant" (rather than bias) in Australian journalism. The study used intuitively unusual methods for detecting slant:

"First, we use parliamentary mentions to code over 100 public intellectuals on a left-right scale. We then estimate slant by using the number of mentions that each public intellectual receives in each media outlet. Second, we have independent raters separately code front-page election stories and headlines. Third, we tabulate the number of electoral endorsements that newspapers give to each side of politics in federal elections. Overall, we find that the Australian media are quite centrist, with very few outlets being statistically distinguishable from the middle of Australian politics."

The methods were modified from US studies into media slants which, as noted in the paper, had a larger sample. Despite the caveats, one metric revealed something interesting about the ABC:

"All but one media outlet is within two standard errors of the center position, 0.47. On this metric, the only media outlet that is significantly slanted is the ABC Channel 2 television station, which is significantly pro-Coalition during the period in question. However, even here the difference is relatively small, with ABC television’s estimate being 0.51."

The paper concluded on a temperate note:

"To the extent that cross-country comparisons are possible, our results suggest that the Australian media — at least in terms of news content — are less partisan than their United States counterparts."

The study conducted by Professor Leigh can only support weak conclusions about the ABC as a whole; it doesn’t support criticisms of particular pieces of journalism. And thus we are left with subjective and interpretative evidence for claims.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Keating’s letter. Watching the interview, I found it difficult to believe that Uhlmann was following and contributing to the conversation, but I doubt I could convince somebody who disagreed with my interpretation.

Unless we begin to develop a shared language about how to spot imbalanced journalism objectively, even insightful minds like Paul Keating’s are going to get stuck in this purgatory of subjectivity.

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