The Truth About Media Bias


On Tuesday, I wrote an article about the difficulties the Gillard Government finds itself in, late in its second term and low on political capital and appeal. Some of our readers were less than appreciative. "These are statements worthy of the MSM/ABC," remarked a commenter named Verum.

Ah, yes, the good old MSM. Otherwise known as the "mainstream media" or sometimes even the "lamestream media", there can be few insults as widespread, or as meaningless, in the current mediascape. What I think Verum was getting at here was that, by buying into the idea that Julia Gillard’s government is in deep trouble, I was merely recycling the same old biases and lies of journalists from more established media outlets, such as the daily newspapers and the ABC.

Lest anyone accuse me of hypocrisy, let it be known that I too employ this imprecise and lazy term all too frequently. For instance, last year I wrote an entire article about the mainstream media, and why I seemed to disagree with them so often. That article too enjoyed its fair share of criticism, including from my colleagues in the so-called mainstream.

It’s hard to quantify, and I can’t cite any analytics about this, but it does seem as though the internet has been besieged by the "MSM" trope. In recent months, the tag has become a common one in Twitter discussions, both among what you might call "ordinary" Twitter users, and also among journalists and commentators. The gist of the gripe is simple: the mainstream media is biased against the Gillard Government. As Peter Brent tweeted on 8 February, "much bagging of ‘MSM’ by countless self-appointed online critics in essence boils down to: does journo writes nice things about Julia?".

So what is the "mainstream media" and is it really biased? Like all loaded terms, who or what you think the mainstream media consists of very much depends on your point of view. Most would consider the "mainstream" includes the three commercial television networks, the big media conglomerates Fairfax and News Limited, and I’d also throw in wire service AAP.

But what about the ABC? For many on the left, for instance, the mainstream media includes the ABC, which many believe has been seduced by the false idol of editorial balance into unfairly championing the views of the Coalition. A favourite point for denigrators is the prevalence of conservative talking heads from the Institute of Public Affairs on ABC talk shows like The Drum or Q and A.

On the other hand, for the culture warriors on the right, the ABC’s supposed left-leaning tendencies retain their capacity to enrage. This week, The Australian even carried a poll on the issue, which found that most people don’t believe the national public broadcaster is biased (Coalition voters, on the other hand, were much more likely than Labor voters to think it is). So is the ABC biased? In general, in my opinion, it is not.

Judging media bias across a broader mediascape is just as difficult. One of the more rigorous recent efforts, by Labor backbencher Andrew Leigh and economist Joshua Gans, attempts to quantify press coverage of Australian politics over the period of the Howard government on a left-right basis. After running all sorts of stats, they conclude that "most media outlets are close to the centre position."

That’s not the way many see it, however. A recent Essential poll asked respondents how much trust they had in various media outlets "for information on major public issues like immigration, climate change or the economy?". Television, radio and newspaper news and current affairs all scored roughly 55 per cent. For newspapers and online news sites like this one, 32 per cent of those surveyed said they had "not much trust", and 8 per cent said they had "no trust at all".

Showing that the accuracy is indeed in the eye of the beholder, the top response by a country mile was "what I learn from my own research". Essential has run a series of polls on similar topics in recent years, which show falling levels of trust in the media have levelled out somewhat. Few of us completely trust the media, but then again, a majority of us place some trust in it.

The trolling on Twitter is annoying, but that’s not to say it isn’t sometimes justified. In recent months, we’ve seen ABC journalists, for instance, repeatedly questioned on Twitter about why they are not asking more questions of Coalition politicians about the James Ashby affair. And that’s a pretty fair complaint: compared to the blanket coverage afforded the AWU non-scandal, especially in the News Limited newspapers, coverage of the conspiracy** against Peter Slipper by James Ashby and Mal Brough has been relatively muted.

Indeed, many of the critics of the MSM have a point. Blogger and former journalist Jim Parker, for instance, pens regular attacks on the prevailing practices of professional journalists at his blog The Failed Estate, and his criticisms are often acute and uncomfortable. A recent post attacking the proliferation of anonymous sources used in stories about leadership speculation touches a sore point with many, including myself, who question whether stories based entirely on nameless "senior Labor figures" deserve a run at all.

The counter-argument, however, is also valid: that the leaking from inside Labor to press gallery journalists is real, and representative of real tensions within the party. After all, those of us who discounted the simmering tensions between the Rudd and Gillard factions this time last year were later forced to eat our words when Kevin Rudd’s failed tilt at the leadership materialised after all.

The incipient critique of the MSM also suggests that an alternative media, perhaps to be found in online journals and blogs, would somehow be better — or at least better informed, more nuanced, and offering deeper analysis. Indeed, this is the explicit claim of independent websites like New Matilda or Crikey. In truth, it’s not an either/or dynamic.

Plenty of fine journalism and deep analysis is still found in the pages of print newspapers, even while their circulations dwindle. And most bloggers and small internet journals would be the first to acknowledge that their lack of resources place inherent constraints on the amount of professional, rigorous news coverage they can deliver.

Blogger Peter Wicks has done fine work covering the HSU scandal over at Independent Australia, for instance. But for every article in the online media that assembles real evidence with investigative rigour, there are plenty more ill-considered opinion pieces or 300-word posts riffing off tried-and-true themes. The mainstream media may be dumbing down, but it will be some time yet before the independent online media can step up to the plate.

There is one aspect of media coverage, however, which I do think is nearly unquestionably biased. This is the tendency for media coverage and political journalism to constrain itself to an imagined perspective of reality. Political scientists call it the "Overton window". It’s the narrow range of positions that our political process considers acceptable. As the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy explains, "this ‘window’ of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election".

Journalists play a critical role in defining the Overton window. Note how often we will use words like "realistic", "acceptable", "feasible", "viable" and "pragmatic" to describe politicians’ positions. Similarly, politicians advancing positions outside the window are often derided with terms like "unrealistic", "untenable", "courageous", and "extreme".

Because the Overton window masquerades as tactical nous or political expediency, journalists are typically blind to its operation. They fail to consider that what seems extreme now (sexual harassment in the workplace, high tariff barriers) was mainstream a generation ago; similarly, what was extreme then (the radical deregulation of many aspects of the economy) is seen simply as "good policy" today.

The Overton window doesn’t have left-right slant: it’s a pair of tinted glasses we don’t even know we are wearing. That makes it the most insidious media bias of all.

**CORRECTION: The article originally said Justice Rares found evidence of a conspiracy against Peter Slipper. In fact he found that James Ashby worked "in combination" with Mal Brough and others to damage Slipper’s reputation.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.