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Is the term ‘bias’ useful to understanding the media?

By Richard Fitzgerald - posted Tuesday, 20 September 2011

With the precipitous collapse of a prominent Murdoch title and possibly his empire in the UK, a recent extended essay by Robert Manne focusing on the Australian newspaper and the regular accusations of partisanship levelled at the ABC there exists a fertile ground for the hunt for media bias as part of the recently announced government inquiry into the media.

As the government begins to lay out the grounds and remit for the inquiry through various media appearances a summary of an interview with Senator Conroy's on the ABC's AM program said

Some had hoped the recently announced inquiry into the media would look at media bias, concentration of ownership or privacy.

Rather the inquiry will focus on print media regulation, and boosting the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council.


The take home message about the proposed inquiry is that it was not going to look at the things apparently 'some' people deemed important. Front and center is the hunt for 'media bias'.

However to focus on finding media bias is to miss the point. Media 'bias' is obvious, unavoidable and to some extent necessary. Hunting for media bias is then problematic to the focus and scrutiny of the media as it serves to obfuscate the important aspects of contemporary media.

As an exercise in critical literacy the search for bias in media reporting is an important step in being an informed citizen, but it is not hard to find.

Indeed media 'bias' is what many students are taught to find in high school media studies classes. And due to this obviousness is a word banned from my first year university classes where analytic depth is valued.

Look at any news coverage. An event occurs and a story is written or produced to tell or describe what the event was. Decisions around language choice, framing, descriptions, sources and other immediate concerns mingle with taken for granted assumptions about the way the world operates.

This is the very nature of 'story telling'. There are events and there is the work of storying those events. This is news coverage.


Thus the term bias when applied to a serious study of the media needs to be treated with some caution. Here, I am not so much concerned with obvious lies, misrepresentation or even sloppy fact checking as these are reportable to the press complaints body.

Rather, all media necessarily select relevant information for telling stories and this will include some 'bias'.

The real importance of an inquiry would be in examining the depth and extent of involvement and influence of the Australian media in both day-to-day politics and the operation of government and policy.

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About the Author

Richard Fitzgerald lectures in the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Queensland.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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