Is media inevitably biased? Can we build a truly objective media outlet?

In the previous week, we discussed the media market in Hong Kong and concluded that it is strong and free from censorship. Based on the information we gathered, Hong Kong is in-between the Liberal model and the Democratic Corporatist model suggested by Hallin and Mancici. However, this evoked me to think whether media can be completely free from biased opinions. According to Herman and Chomsky, they came up with 5 obstacles which may affect the media also known as the propaganda model.

The first filter is the ownership of the media organization. Media organizations will not conflict against the view of the owner or owning company, and journalists under the media organization are likely to support the owner’s view. An example of this is the owner of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai. He is a supporter of the Democratic Party and Apple Daily becomes a pro-democracy newspaper. Journalists who work in such news organisation have little degree of autonomy and low levels of journalistic professionalism. However, it is almost impossible to overcome this filter if the news organization is still owned by one stakeholder. Another example is when the news organization is owned by a dominating corporate, for example SCMP is now owned by Jack Ma, it is less likely to criticise the performance of Alibaba. Thus, one assumption is that, if news organizations are funded by the government, journalists will no longer need to avoid the conflict of interest between their positions and the corporate owners. Even though some may argue that government-funded media organizations may lead to instrumentalization for political advocacy such as the BBC in the United Kingdom, the example of Scandinavian countries demonstrates that government subsidies do not always lead to instrumentalization. According to Hallin and Mancici’s research, governments of countries in the Democratic Corporatist model can provide subsidies for small news organisations to maintain the number of voices in the media market and to avoid domination by monopolistic firms.

The second filter is advertising. Fund of a news organization is mostly generated from advertisements. More advertisements on a newspaper help to keep the selling price of newspapers low as they cover the printing costs. If a news organization fails to attract adequate advertisements, it will have to raise the price of the newspapers. The dependence on advertisements may force news organizations to report on news that are favoured by the advertising businesses but not beneficial to the public. To overcome this problem, government funding or subsidies granted to media organizations will enable news organization to be less dependent on advertisers because their costs are now covered by the government’s funding. This would also allow them to criticise corporations more. However, news organizations are often afraid of flak which results in self-censorship.

Flak is also one of the filters mentioned by Herman and Chomsky, journalists are usually concerned about writing news related to business organizations with negative connotations. This is particularly true for journalists who work in smaller news organizations. They have less capital and will not be able to withstand litigation brought by magnates or business organisations due to their criticism. To avoid flak, news organizations often self-censor sensitive issues about powerful corporates. This is because if magnates and dominating corporates are being discredited without solid proof, they can sue the news organization until they run out of business. One of the examples to avoid flak can be seen from Korean news organizations, they tend not to report negative news about Samsung, as it is one of the dominating Korean businesses and it often advertises on newspapers.

The fourth filter comes from sourcing. Since resources in media organizations are limited, they cannot report every news anytime and anywhere. No matter whether the media organization is large or small, according to Herman and Chomsky, it will be attracted to powerful sources of information due to reciprocal interests and economic reasons, for example, a news organization will only concentrate its resources around central places and government offices where news often take place, and they will rely on receiving news input from credible business corporations. One solution to widen the source of news is to invite readers to participate in collecting and providing information on significant issues that occur in their communities to media organizations. Another solution is citizen journalism. Citizens are encouraged to actively participate in news reporting and dissemination through social media. This will reduce the filter of sourcing, however, it may also create other concerns such as poor news quality and subjectivity because no one is in charge in regulating the news provided by the public.

The last filter is ideological marginalization. Media organizations tend to marginalize anti-ideology individuals and groups. These groups will be shaped to pose threat to the public, creating public fear and hatred. For example, at the beginning of the U.S. military operation in Iraq, President Bush convinced the public to believe that Saddam Hussein possess catastrophic and biological weapons which would threaten the stability and peace of Middle East. Those who oppose the state policy were considered insufficiently patriotic. Ideological marginalization is particularly difficult to eliminate.

The filters mentioned by Herman and Chomsky are hard to eliminate as ideological marginalization and flak cannot be removed completely. As a result, media is inevitably biased. Although it is possible to reduce the influence of the five filters, it is not possible to overcome all the barriers. In response to the question whether a truly objective media outlet can exist, the answer will be no. As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the solution to sourcing involves encouraging citizen journalism, however, news reporting from citizen may lead to subjectivity. On the other hand, if specific rules and regulations are set, participation will be lowered so this solution will be less effective. In addition, increase in government funding and subsidies may lead to instrumentalization. Strong state intervention may cause the public to question the credibility of news organizations. Thus, in conclusion, it is highly unlikely that a truly objective media outlet can be created.

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