The myth of objectivity that dominates the media (particularly the mainstream media) ultimately only results in a defense of the political, social and economic status quo. I believe that all journalists and media outlets have an obligation to raise serious questions about the dominant power structures in the world in which we live and should be open about their ideological perspective in the process. The mainstream corporate media’s claims (particularly in the United States) to being “objective,” non-bias,” “neutral” or “non-ideological” are simply ludicrous. Their news coverage is overwhelmingly dependent on official sources and constantly reflects the accepted norms of a Western liberal democratic and capitalist society. Inevitably then, the mainstream media defends the status quo—which constitutes biased reporting because the existing political, social and economic system under which we live is ideologically based. Therefore, no journalist or media outlet is objective or non-biased.
Alternative media (whether right- or left-leaning) should work to dispel the myth of objectivity that exists in the mainstream media. The ideological perspective of any journalist or media outlet should be immediately apparent to all readers. It should not be masked by presenting analysis and information as “fact” or the “truth.” The facts and the truth are always open to interpretation, and that interpretation is always influenced by ideology. Given this reality, people need analysis from a variety of ideological perspectives in order to draw their own conclusions and to constantly re-evaluate their own ideological positions.
In the early twentieth century, there were 24 daily newspapers in New York City and each of them presented issues from a particular ideological perspective (capitalist, libertarian, socialist, anarchist, social democratic, fascist, etc.). Today, there are four corporate-owned newspapers all claiming to be “objective,” but in reality presenting one ideological perspective: that of the ruling political and economic elites. This concentration of media over the second half of the twentieth century has restricted debate within the narrow parameters of the dominant ideological perspective. For example, the covering of both the Democratic and Republican positions on an issue is presented as non-bias reporting when, in reality, it merely portrays two relatively similar variants of one ideological perspective while ignoring a whole plethora of others.
The impression of objectivity is achieved through the journalist not directly conveying his or her personal ideological bias in a news piece. However, that bias, along with that of editors, producers and others who impact the final product, is still represented in the choice of topic, sources and structuring (i.e. if more than one perspective is presented, which one appears closest to the beginning of the piece, thereby having more impact).
The mainstream media’s over-reliance on official sources routinely leads to bias in news reporting. During President Alvaro Uribe’s first term in office (2002-2006), the New York Times published 21 news reports that referred to the killing of civilians in Colombia. Seventeen of the reports held the guerrillas responsible for the killings referred to in those articles. In every one of the seventeen articles in which the guerrillas were held responsible, the only sources cited were Colombian government or military officials. But such a biased presentation is deemed to be objective journalism because it is the Colombian government’s perspective that is presented in the article and not that of the journalist. In all likelihood, casual readers of those news stories about Colombia internalized (either sub-consciously or consciously) the ideological perspective of the Colombian government.
As producers of alternative media, we should not focus our energy on trying to cover all perspectives, since it simply cannot be done. We should also avoid needlessly repeating the perspectives that dominate the mainstream media and instead work to present those perspectives that are too often ignored, thereby broadening the parameters of news and analysis available.
The provision of analysis from an array of ideological perspectives can only result in a better informed public and a healthier debate—and, ultimately, a deeper democracy. But sadly, in our society, those in the mainstream media who reflect the ideological views of those in power are too often accepted as being “objective,” while the rest of us who challenge those views are simply dismissed as “ideological” or “biased.”
Author Garry Leech is an independent journalist and editor of Colombia Journal. He is the author of numerous books including Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009) and Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006. He is also co-author with Terry Gibbs of The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Colombia and Beyond (Cape Breton University Press, 2009).