Media Myths: Reality TV and Unbiased Reporting

I hear the terms “reality tv” and “media bias” frequently, but the reality is that there is no such thing as reality tv, and while there is no “media bias” there is no such thing as “unbiased reporting”.  

Media, whether we are talking about television, film, commercials or journalism is about storytelling and you can’t tell a story without taking a point of view. 

In “reality tv” producers gather people into specific situations designed to generate reactions. They gather thousands of hours of footage. They prompt certain responses by asking questions that they know will generate a certain reaction. For example, asking a reality show participant how they feel about a humiliating experience, moments after the fact is almost guaranteed to generate a dramatic response. 

After gathering footage and prompting dramatic responses, the shows creators sit down in editing and put together a story by picking and choosing the bits that fit within the story they are trying to tell. You simply omit the parts that do not work well with your story. By doing this producers can make saints look like demons and vice versa. 

If you want to know what “reality tv” would actually look like look out your window or sit in an outdoor cafe for an afternoon. People watching can be fun, but it’s unlikely that you’ll come across very much back biting, name calling, hair pulling and open weeping. 

The ‘news’ is actually not all that different. Each reporter comes to a topic or event with a story they want to tell. The facts and opinions that go into a story are carefully selected. To be fair, it would be impossible to do otherwise. Any story of significance involves hundreds, possibly thousands, of facts and there are not ‘two sides to every story’ there are dozens at the very least. Without some screening each news story would turn into a book. 

Reporters also have a list of sources. They want to choose, when possible, people who the reader already knows so the ‘usual suspects’ naturally get more air time than others. Good reporters also know, roughly, what a given source will say on a given topic. If they need someone to put forward a particular opinion, they know who to call to get the words they are looking for or at least very similar ones. 

Whether it is done consciously or unconsciously, it is almost impossible that a reporter's experiences and biases wouldn’t play a role in the facts they choose to include and the people they decide to call. 

It is also true that the public is biased. To be successful media requires an audience. Sensational facts and opinions will get more readers, listeners and viewers. Some members of the public may not want to believe this, but it is true in the same way that it is true that negative ads work. Also, since the birth of Fox News, many outlets place a greater emphasis on telling viewers, listeners and readers what they want to hear

The general exception to the above is science reporting. In science you are generally reporting on a set of data - a research study, an equation, a new set of photos from a space probe etc. Each set of data says a certain thing and there are only so many ways that it can be spun. In some cases there may be conflicting data, or questions about the data’s authenticity but even then there are a finite number of sides to the story. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says “The great thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”. 

For all other stories though, to varying degrees the bias of the reporter, editor and audience all come into play in the telling of a story. The bias may be subtle, the story teller and the audience may not even be aware of them, but it is nearly impossible for them to be absent. Even if robots take over the news writing, the algorithms used to generate the stories will have built in biases of some kind. 

So, in the end there is no ‘unbiased reporting’, there is no ‘reality tv’, there is no ‘fair and balanced’. Each bit of information gleaned from media should be seen as grist for the mill, bits of data that you can use when you put your own critical thinking skills to work. So long as ‘truth’ is subjective it cannot be otherwise.

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