I saw an advertisement yesterday heralding, “Unbiased News from a Christian Perspective.” In the comments, more than a few people pointed out the irony of that statement.
It is the job of news media to make sense of the world. Some networks take a very active approach (Tucker Carlson giving energetic speeches in attempt to persuade his audience), and some take a less active approach (C-Span televising a court room without any commentary). By virtue of trying to make sense of the world, to organize the events of society into something relatively coherent, news networks must choose what to show, how to show it, when, etc. In this, they are imposing their values, their agendas, their narratives, their subjectivity on the world. And this is an honorable undertaking.
“The Media” or “The News Media” is all the rage these days, which makes for an exciting time to be studying mass-media communication. I’m particularly interested in an idea I’ve been encountering frequently: I just wish I could find an unbiased, objective news source. And since that sentiment keeps on raining down, it seems we haven’t found one yet. It’s worth considering what exactly one would look like, should we stumble across it. If bias is presupposition or even a state which is bent towards certain outcomes, we would need a news source with none of these things, no values.
Some argue, of course we can never achieve a state of being objective and unbiased, but we ought to try. And I for one can’t think of anything more horrible or undesirable than that. To achieve perfect un-bias, total objectivity, would require the complete removal of the subject from the process. Any time a news report airs, it can be assumed the subject matter was chosen from a list and the rest of the list discarded. Every time Tucker Carlson or Don Lemon preaches a sermon, the topic has been chosen, and all the other topics left behind. To present one topic and not another is bias, subjectivity. Further, every time something is said, a hundred thousand other things were not said. To live is to choose to inhabit each moment in a way that necessarily leaves behind all but one of the options. The present is manifested by abandoning all but one of the ways forward into the future.
The problem with saying just give me the facts is of course, “which facts would you like?” and “from which perspective?” The facts are literally infinite and would include time tables, train schedules, weather reports from the Amazon jungle, ocean temperatures in the Artic, performance times for concerts in Russia, and any number of conceivable “truths” about the spinning world. In choosing what to say, in choosing who will say it, in choosing when to air it, a network imposes itself upon the world and enters into the task of sense making. If you want a truly unbiased, objective news reporter, I suspect your best bet would be hiring a genderless individual who had grown up in no culture, who spoke no particular language, and had no particular education – you would show “it” footage of the world from space, and it would report your news using binary code.
This experiment would be quite fun. Still, better yet I think, would be to allow a real person, with real values and virtue and goals and talents and experiences and culture, to help you make sense of the world. And if you go roaming through the digital landscape and choose dear Tucker or Mr. Anderson or Walter Cronkite or Shapiro or Bloomberg, good for you. Take comfort in finding a person whose sense making you enjoy – heck, maybe even pick more than one! But don’t deceive yourself into thinking you’ve found a robot who’s just giving you the unbiased, objective facts. No person or group of people could ever achieve that, and no viewer really wants it anyway.
This is not to say all reporting is equal, or all values are equally desirable. Not in the least. And if your values correspond with the values of Fox or CNN, it probably feels better and is more effective at “making sense” when you listen to them. Yet we are further ahead if we can recognize narrative and agenda as fundamentally part of the process. Once we understand the nature of these texts (pieces of news), we can move toward seeing the trajectory of the narratives being imposed. And then we can choose to accept the story/identity offered or to resist it. Or as stated by Helen Fulton,
“Only by understanding the mythic nature of these narratives…can we begin to choose whether to accept the seamless identity laid out for us or to find its contradictions and resist.” – Helen Fulton
There is no unbiased news, and we shouldn’t wish for it. That would present a dull reality to be sure. Making sense of the world is a formidable task which requires our active participation. By understanding the nature, goals, and assumptions of the stories we’re being told, we position ourselves to make better decisions in our accepting and resisting.