Donna Miles-Mojab: Is there such a thing as unbiased reporting?

New Zealand's public broadcaster RNZ is launching a review into wire news edits
New Zealand's public broadcaster RNZ has launched a review into wire news edits . . . a panel of experts has been named. Image: Diego Opatowski/RNZ News

COMMENTARY: By Donna Miles-Mojab

Recently, there was a serious revelation that some wire service reports were edited, without attribution, by an individual employee of our national broadcaster, RNZ.

Now, let’s examine the way I composed the above sentence.

I included the word “serious” to signal to readers that this news is of significant importance. The reason is that I believe there is already extensive frustration at media coverage of news — and therefore anything that erodes trust in our major media should be taken seriously.

Later in the sentence, I used the word “edited”. Initially, I had used the word “altered” but I made a conscious decision to change it to “edited”. I did this because I thought the word “altered” might suggest a higher type of wrongdoing — one that could be linked to fraud and criminality, such as being paid by a foreign agent to alter documents.

There is no evidence that this was the case at RNZ. The word “edited” suggests the use of some sort of journalistic judgment which, in this particular case, regardless of the factuality or falsehood of the edits, were clearly unethical because they were unauthorised and undeclared.

The reference to “an individual employee” was to ensure that other journalists at RNZ, and the organisation as a whole, were not implicated in the revelation. If I had thought RNZ was systematically biased in its reporting, I probably would have just written that RNZ had been found to be altering wire service news.

So my choice of words to form the first sentence of this column was informed by my personal perspectives, as well as the impression I hoped to create in the minds of those reading it.

The subject of this column isn’t about what happened at RNZ. We will be informed of this, in time, when the result of the ongoing inquiry is made public.

Unbiased reporting?
The question I intend to explore here is if there is such a thing as unbiased reporting.

I went back to university later in life to study journalism because it was important to me to understand how the news was produced. My course placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of objectivity and impartiality as ideal standards of news reporting, without much discussion about the limits of achieving such unrealistic standards.

News is produced by reporters and shaped by editors who cannot help but inject their own perspectives and personal experiences into the final product. Even when reporting live from the scene, journalists often have to form a judgment as to what is newsworthy, and so depending on who is reporting the story, the information we receive may alter.

In general, the idea of “unbiased”, “objective” or “neutral” reporting cannot be entirely divorced from the editorial guides journalists use to determine what information to report, and also what they believe is the truth.

Omitting context or the decision to exclude some key words can, in some instances, produce a misleading report.

For instance, my interest in the Palestinian cause has meant that I notice the journalistic language used in reporting on Palestine. I consider that Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) should always be referred to as “occupied Gaza” and “occupied West Bank” because this is their legal status under international law.

But in many articles about Palestine, the word “occupied” is often dropped even though its use matters because it gives relevant context to reporting of political and military events there.

Impartial presentation
Some journalistic codes refer to “balanced” and “fair” reporting. The idea here is that, where there is controversy, there should be an impartial presentation of all facts as well as all substantial opinions relating to it.

A fair report, it is said, should avoid giving equal footing to truths and mistruths and should provide factual context to any inaccurate or misleading public statement.

In recent years, The New York Times has used a series of articles known as Explainers to, as they describe it, “demystify thorny topics”.

Stuff’s Explained follows a similar format to help deconstruct topics that are complex and challenging to understand.

The notion of bias in news writing has become the most common criticism of the media.

Ultimately, the solution to increasing trust in journalism lies in transparency and disclosure of the standards, judgments and systems used to produce and edit news. It is therefore right that RNZ has announced an external review of its processes for the editing of online stories.

But there should also be a mind shift in our understanding of the notions of unbiased and objective reporting — namely that these notions have always existed and continue to operate within power dynamics that give privilege to certain perspectives.

The best approach, therefore, is to always allow for an element of doubt — and only believe something to be true just so long as our active efforts to disprove it have been unsuccessful.

Donna Miles-Mojab is an Iranian New Zealander interested in justice and human rights issues. She lives in Christchurch and works as a freelance journalist and a columnist for The Press. This article is republished with the author’s permission.

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