Is there bias in Western media? Some would argue, of course, bias is inevitable. Some would argue, no, media in the West is by definition free of external influence, high-professionalized and objective, anybody who is stating the opposite is falling for conspiracy theories or Russian propaganda. A recent paper, conducted by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) and entitled “Filtering revolution: Reporting bias in international newspaper coverage of the Libyan civil war”, examined the media biases that are prevalent in both democracies and non-democratic nation states when reporting on the Libyan civil war.
The authors sought to confirm their hypothesis that authoritarian nation states were more likely to present pro Gaddafi or pro regime information, while denouncing the rebels by highlighting atrocities they had committed. Such theory is based on the presumption that governments in non-democracies have a tight control over media output and as a consequence regimes of this type refuse to inadvertently promote their own downfall by presenting a true reflection of the rebel cause.
By contrast the PRIO paper also noted a bias in democratic nation states of the Libyan conflict. The authors attributed this bias due to the commercial interests of private media that sought to maximise profit by celebrating the rare event or, as they put it, the reporting of “surprising, dramatic developments that challenge the conventional wisdom” and are consequentially deemed to excite and promote greater readership, hence maximising the aforementioned profit and in doing so confirm the related theories posited by a host of academics (such as Schneider, Kelly, Schrodt, Simpson & Gerner), who see “newsworthiness” and “profit” as the key drivers that distort balanced reporting in democracies. These sentiments are succinctly defined by the authors of this paper who noted that:
“Consistent with an authoritarian interest in delegitimizing political opponents and dissuading emulation efforts at home, news media in non-democratic states underreported protests and nonviolent collective action by regime opponents, largely ignored government atrocities, and overreported those committed by rebels. We find the opposite patterns in democratic states.”
However to highlight media coverage from one solitary conflict no matter how thoroughly provides a highly insufficient data set by which to examine such phenomenon irrespective of how thoroughly that content was examined.
While this paper lacks serious depth it does however reveal that there is a bias in both democratic and non-democratic regimes in the singular Libyan case and hence provides a spring board that when applied across a greater data set, i.e. across a variety of war zones, enables us to question and examine a continuation of bias in both camps. In fact by extending the research across more conflict zones it reveals that democracies can also report in favour of non-democratic regimes that are at war with rebels if they see themselves as aligned with that particular regime. Paramount here therefore is not media sensationalism attributable to the rare event as outlined by the authors above, but more a pattern that reporting appears to reflect the geopolitical interests of the nation state in which it occurs, that is to say that reporting simply follows the overall strategic interests of the nations involved.
While the authors offer a caveat to their audience when admitting that media content they analysed in bulk was derived from NATO democracies that presented a warring party in direct conflict with the Gaddafi regime, they then seek to confirm once more their hypothesis by examining the media content of non-NATO democracies, however once more this is insufficient. It is simply not enough to infer that non-NATO democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand share media reports that match those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s member states because they in general are still in alignment strategically with their Western partners, indeed they often are bound by intelligence cooperation treaties or organisations such as the “five eyes” (FVEY) or other intelligence pacts, this in no way allows for impartiality, rather confirms the strategic nature of relationships between certain democracies, not to mention a dependence on the same sources. While if we look at reporting from Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Saudi, well established autocracies, we cannot say that the media was pro government. They follow for example the same interests as their NATO allies in both the Yemen and Syria conflicts and while not being democracies they pitch the same view as their Western partners in relationship to the Assad and Houthi regimes.
In fact the disparities involved in reporting between the Yemen and Syria conflicts provides an example of how media bias is extremely apparent, as does the equally divulging coverage of events in Aleppo and Mosul. When we examine conflicts overtime, it is clear that geopolitics becomes the most likely variable by which to assess media coverage. This is perhaps extremely troublesome to admit, because it questions how free is the media really in those nations listed as democracies.
One thing is clear, reporting in every nation appears to correlate overwhelmingly with that respective governments position, while there are drowned out dissident voices in both democracies and non-democracies their appear to be targeted media campaigns that affirm a nation’s position. In other words, propaganda and manipulation of audiences occur the world over.
PRIO were contacted in relation to their study but failed to reply after considerable time.
TIP: How to start questioning the news. It becomes vital that consumers of information question their sources and examine content. A good start is examining where a reporter is based when appearing on prime time news. For instance, if a reporter joins a news feed from Beirut in Lebanon and reports on an incidence that occurred in Deir Ez Zor, Syria, one hour ago, then we can assume with certainty that he is not a witness, but a mere conveyor of somebody else’s information. If this source happens then to be for example MI6 or an interested party in a conflict then we must assume that this information is unlikely to be neutral. Further it is important to assess news with the governments’ position and assess interests.