Bias, Truth, Trust | What The Media Can Learn From Social Research(ers)


The current debate over bias in and trust of the media reminds me of long-time debates amongst social science researchers about objectivity and subjectivity within social research. The BBC’s Nick Robinson has said that criticism of the BBC and of mainstream newspaper journalism from alternative online media sites (from both the left and the right) are at least partially responsible for a lack of trust in outlets and outputs traditionally viewed as beyond reproach. Robinson describes this as a ‘guerrilla war’ arguing that the critics of television and newspaper reporting ‘now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe in ‘the news’.

Recently, I read two responses to this:

We can no longer pretend the British press is impartial’ (Owen Jones, The Guardian (Opinion) 9th October, 2017) and

Centrist pundits are losing the plot over ‘impartiality’: from where I stand’ (Aaron Bastani, Huck, 9th October 2017)

Owen Jones argues:

"Britain’s press is not an impartial disseminator of news and information. It is, by and large, a highly sophisticated and aggressive form of political campaigning and lobbying. It uses its extensive muscle to defend our current economic order which, after all, directly benefits the rich moguls who own almost the entire British press. Whether it’s the Sun, the Telegraph, the Times, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, that means promoting the partisan interests of the Conservative party. The press has been instrumental in upholding the political consensus established by Thatcherism: deregulation, privatisation, low taxes on the rich and weak trade unions. It has traditionally defined what is politically acceptable and palatable in Britain, and ignored, demonised and humiliated individuals and movements which challenge this consensus."

The influence of such an approach is evidenced, Jones adds, by the fact that opinion polls show that many people still believe misrepresentation, inaccuracies, lies even, if reported in ‘the news’. Interestingly, and ironically, Jones cites the Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh, who once described Jeremy Corbyn supporters as ‘thick as pigshit’, but not The Guardian journalist Nick Cohen who similarly called us (making my own ‘bias’ obvious here) ‘fucking fools’. Jones also makes reference to alternative news outlets which he judges as good and not so good without acknowledging this as reflecting his own personal views and prejudices.

As Aaron Bastani notes, without the huge amount of activity online – including alternative/new media writings; personal commentary and blogging; and memes and videos by the Labour Party, Momentum and other left wing supporters – it is less likely that Labour would have secured 40% of the vote in June 2017. Bastani, like Jones, provides useful evidence of the obvious political affiliations of many journalists and editors. He adds:

"This fusion, between media and politics, is the totem of a rigged system. Trust in journalism is at historic lows precisely because people can see what is immediately obvious: the vast majority of the media isn’t impartial and those journalists that claim to be are almost all the result of an elite education. It is a club and there are rules. If you dare break them in politics you are deemed ‘unelectable’; transgress them in journalism and you are illegitimate."

So what has this got to do with social research? What are the connections between discussions of bias in the media and biased sociological (my own discipline) writings? Historically, within sociology and other social sciences the so-called ‘scientific’ approach was unquestioningly adopted as the best way to study both the physical and the social world. Objectivity was possible, it was argued, and the ‘expert neutral knower’ (the researcher) was expected to generalize from research to wider social and physical populations. From this perspective 'the truth is out there’ and researchers can investigate and discover said ‘truth’ by putting aside their own view, opinions, biases.

As the supporters of this approach were mostly male (it was not until the second half of the 20thCentury that women began to enter the academy in any great numbers) not surprisingly (and clearly demonstrating the bias at play) the focus was generally on male experience which was in turn positioned, and promoted, as the ‘norm’. The earliest critics of this argument were also male and although they were critical of the claims to objectivity, value-freedom and the search for the ‘truth’ their research still tended to focus on male experience and the sexist aspects of the work was not challenged. From the 1970's feminist researchers began to criticise male-dominated ‘knowledge production’ and the methodological claims made by researchers who argued that their work was objective and value free.

In my own academic writings I have tried to work towards a position that challenges traditional claims to objectivity and recognises the identity (personhood) of the researcher and the complex relationship between the researcher and those they research (which itself has an impact on the research process and its final product) and yet still enables useful things to be said. It has become commonplace for researchers to acknowledge the need to consider how the researcher as author is positioned in relation to the research process, not least with reference to the choice and design of the research fieldwork and analysis, editorship and presentation.

Increasingly researchers accept that subjectivity and bias is inevitable and with this in mind I have argued that '. . .it is better to understand the complexities within research rather than to pretend that they can be controlled, and biased sources can themselves result in useful data' (Letherby 2003: 71). It seems that journalism, or at least some journalists, are catching up. Jones suggests that there has been an increase in opinion journalism masquerading as objective reporting and Bastani argues:

There is nothing wrong with politically committed journalism, be it in comment or reportage, legacy media or new. The point is to be open and honest with one’s audience about those commitments.

Yes indeed.

Rather than attempting to redefine objectivity (as some social researchers have done) I have, in my research work, instead been concerned (and have concerns) with ‘the pursuit for objectivity’ as the starting point of any methodological discussion. I have argued that if instead we start by accepting our subjective position - the significance of our personhood (intellectual, personal, political) within the research process - and really try to understand the complexities and the influence of these, this ‘super-sensitivity’ to the relevance of the personhood of the researcher could feasibly lead to the conclusion that our work is closer to objectivity, in that our work, if not value-free, is value-explicit (Letherby 2003, 2013). My starting point then recognizes the values (both positive and negative) of the subjective. For me subjectivity is not the opposite of objectivity but rather it is just how it is; an inevitable part of any research endeavor, and similarly any journalistic work. Furthermore:

· Researchers are not intellectually superior to those they research but we do have privileges (e.g. discipline training, research resources and access to multiple accounts) and must admit the implications of these. The same is true of journalists and other such writers.

· I do not believe that I am in a position to generate the 'true story' of any experience I research but I do believe that 'my story' can stand in opposition to and as a criticism of 'other stories' (both feminist and non-feminist, academic and lay). Similarly, alternative and new media provides us with a challenge to ‘news’ which has been shown not only to be not objective but is also guilty of promoting a politics of fear and of hate. I have written about this before; see here:

· In my research (and more recently my own political opinion piece writings) I do not claim to have ever found ‘the answer' but by starting to ask different questions of different/under-researched groups OR by drawing on accounts and writings that challenge the mainstream I believe that my writing helps to highlight complexities of differences of experience and of opinion that may previously not have been considered. I do not claim that my work is by definition superior to other knowledge claims and indeed I accept that my work and my bias, just like everyone else’s, should be subject to critical enquiry. Nick Robinson's (and others) concerns have prompted debate on the value(s) of and embedded within the media (in its broadest sense). Such discussion can only be good as it shines light on the inevitable political bias within ALL journalism. The more we talk and write about this the better for all of us.

For more by this author, visit Gayle Letherby's blog

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