There’s much discontent at the state of journalism, not least at the BBC. What’s insufficiently appreciated, however, is that bad journalism doesn’t just arise from individual incompetence and time pressures. There are also systematic structural forces towards bad and biased reporting. Here’s a list of some of them: I make no claim to completeness; some are more applicable in some news organizations than others; and these are in no order.
- Low pay. The problem here isn’t just that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. It’s that journalists are often paid less than PRs. This leads to many of them being insufficiently critical of their sources simply because they might want to work in PR later.
- Cost-cutting. Foreign correspondents have disappeared, as has much investigative journalism, and has been replaced by cheap celebrity gossip and cobbling stories together from a few tweets. What Ben Rhodes says of the US echoes in the UK:
All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.
- Class. Over half of top journalists were privately educated. This generates a host of distortions, such as a greater sympathy for the rich and powerful than for the poor, and a lack of understanding of economics: “Money? That’s what comes from daddy!”
- Exchanging favours. For years, the relationship between the police and media has been too cosy: the police feed stories to journalists who in return downplay or ignore stories of police malpractice. This is one reason why it took years for the brutality of the police at Orgreave or Hillsborough to become properly known. In the same way, advertisers buy not just advertising space but a cooperative silence, broken only by the occasional brave maverick such as Peter Oborne.
- Misplaced deference. The problem here isn’t just what Adam Smith called the tendency to respect the rich and powerful more than the wise and virtuous. Younger inexpert journalists often need help, which causes them to seek expertise where little exists. Fund managers, for example, are often presented as well-informed when in fact many are simply rip-off merchants. Similarly, their habit of being at the end of a phone with a ready quote about latest market moves or economic releases gives City economists more influence over journalists than academics have.
- Laziness. It’s easy to get a story by getting quotes from talking heads. It’s harder to find out what’s really going on. This leads to a bias in favour of those talking heads, and against groups which aren’t so rich or organized as to have spokesmen; compare, for example, coverage of banks to coverage of anti-capitalist protestors or of the rich to benefit recipients.
- Overcompensation. The problem with trying to balance is that you can sometimes overdo it and topple over – hence, for example, the Today’s programme’s otherwise odd decision to interview Ann Coulter and its giving more coverage to Conservative than Labour voices. Similarly, in the 90s the BBC’s liberal arts bias led to it being unsympathetic to business but in recent years, it has over-corrected and become insufficiently critical. I’ll plead guilty myself here. I might have sometimes been too uncritical in the day job of Brexiteers or active managers, as I’ve tried too hard to be “fair”.
- Libel laws. As Nick Cohen has shown, the cost of defending libel writs is so high as to have a chilling effect upon journalism; the misdeeds of the rich and powerful simply don’t get reported at all. This helps sustain inequality by leading the public to under-estimate the venality and corruption of the rich.
- Wanting the scoop. Journalists’ healthy urge to get a story leads to a reliance upon sources who have their own agendas. We see one baleful and widespread effect of this in the advance leaking of speeches; “the Prime Minister will say today…”. Such leaks mean that analyses of the speech are quickly out-of-date and stale, with the upshot that the speaker gets less critical coverage than he should.
- Cognitive biases. Every profession is prone to deformation professionnelle. One of journalists’ biases is the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to over-emphasize personal factors and under-rate environmental ones. For example, politicians are described as “weak” – think of John Major in the 90s – when in fact circumstances, such as a fractious party, make them so. It’s this failure to put things into context that led John Birt in 1975 to complain of the BBC’s “bias against understanding” – a bias which, says Steve Richards, still exists today.
- News itself. “Dog bites man” is not news, “man bites dog” is. This means that everyday tragedies such as the fact that tens of thousands still die of poverty are underplayed, whilst the most trivial of first world problems are covered in depth. Also, news prizes “human interest” stories. These are almost equivalent to committing the base rate fallacy – of failing to ask “how common is that?” This can lead to a class bias: lively stories of benefit fraudsters get covered whilst the millions of decent people living in desperate conditions get ignored.
These biases tend to have the same effect: they lead to insufficiently critical coverage of the rich and powerful. In this sense, the claim that because the BBC is doing a good job because it is criticized from left and right is dubious. In fact It can be biased leftwards because of individuals’ occasional maladroit judgments, and biased rightwards for the above reasons.
You might object here that I’ve missed the obvious – that journalists do what their billionaire bosses tell them. That, though, is my point – that even without such pressure and without any conspiracy, journalism is biased to support the existing order.