The summer silly season is over and it’s time for television viewing to get back to normal. For politics junkies nationwide, that means a return to ABC’s Monday night line up: Australian Story, Four Corners, Media Watch, and Q&A. For all our grizzles and groans about Q&A, Monday night ABC presents some of the best television journalism available in Australia.
But not everybody’s happy with the ABC. In 2011, GetUp! found itself in a media storm when the ‘Suggest a Campaign’ tool (now defunct) was used to vent frustrations about rightwing bias on the ABC. The chief culprit was Chris Uhlmann, co-host of 7.30 who, in interviews with Senator Bob Brown and Prime Minister Gillard, was perceived as “childish” and “aggressively interruptive”. Although both ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs and ACMA cleared Uhlmann, the findings have done little to soothe the rage.
Meanwhile, the feelings of Coalition supporters towards Aunty are well known. Perhaps surprisingly, at the exact same time the Left were crying foul over Uhlmann’s style, there were complaints from the Right about the lack of Coalition-friendly voices on The Drum. As a rightwinger myself, I find it difficult to take the complaint seriously. Exactly how many times do you need to present articles which say ‘I’m not a scientist, but I checked the science and climate change is garbage’ before you’ve reached balance?
There have been attempts to settle the discussion. 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.”
Instead of being an “Aha!” moment, 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.”
And that – I would have thought – was that. 2009 was the year we finally put the question to bed. Is the media biased? Computer says ‘Not particularly’.
And yet here we are, at the start of 2012, still worried that the ABC is biased against whichever end of the political spectrum we’re haunting. Part of that might have something to do with our inability to get over our intuitions. In response to the paper on media slant, Chris Berg of the Institute for Public Affairs responded to all the complicated maths and long words with: “I don’t agree with the results and I think there’s a deep problem with the results in that it doesn’t really pass the laughter test.”
Because that’s how you test academic research: “Did you laugh at it? If so, it’s probably incorrect.”
But there might be another reason why we are here in 2012 pondering the question of ABC bias. Do we suffer from a socio-cultural inability to discuss concepts like “bias”, “prejudice”, and “balance” meaningfully?
We characterise “unbiased” as being factual, balanced, and impartial as if these are unproblematic terms with which we would all agree if we are not being duplicitous or suffering from a bone growing through our brains. Worse, we characterise our own opinions as being unbiased. After all, we are rational, fair-minded people. It therefore follows – as the night the day – that we have balanced, evidence-based opinions and that people who disagree with us are unbalanced or unhinged.
But we can do better than this. Bias is currently seen as a pejorative, the white ant infestation in the architraves of the Cathedral of Good Journalism. This brutal view ignores that language itself is biased. If we try to convey any fact with language, we are wrapping an objective truth in the foggy cloud of language’s subjectivity. And that’s even assuming that we directly experience the untarnished and untainted facts that we are trying to convey to others.
Bias is the price we pay for language which can incense, inspire, and insinuate, which can seduce with sublime subtlety, and which can order pizza. A Faustian trade, perhaps.
On this understanding of bias, we get an easy answer to our questions: yes, the ABC is biased because all language is biased. A journalist interpreted the scene and is now trying to communicate that information using an inescapably biased toolkit.
If I’m correct – and I think I am, because I’m biased – we should not see bias as an evil to overcome but an occupational hazard of the writing craft. We’re no longer trying to count empirically the units of bias in an article in metric KiloBolts, and it’s no longer a game of “Bias = Boo! Objective = Yay!” Instead, we are asking more complicated questions: Is the article being unreasonable? Is the author trying to render their biases invisible? Am I reacting to the content or the way the content is presented?
By 2012, we ought to have tamed the bias beast and made peace with how ABC handles its bias. Alas, empirical studies do not satiate our inner conspiracy theorists, and so we have to turn to our cultural difficulties understanding bias and balance. We will at last be able to to enjoy our regularly scheduled hit of Monday night political entertainment without the nagging feeling that the television is prejudiced against our political opinions.