Time to let go of the illusion of impartiality in journalism

Why more and more young people feel alienated from mainstream publications and the cult of neutrality

The weekend of July 10-11 saw the whole world watch anti-government protesters in Cuba. Large, traditional news media reported in detail Cuba’s worsening food and medicine shortage, made worse by the pandemic and the reinstatement of American sanctions. 

Curiously, however, my social media page was flooded with anger at the news coverage of the protests. As many eagle-eyed scouts were able to discern, the file photo used by publications such as The New York Times, and The Guardian to depict “anti-government” protesters, had an anomaly.  The “anti-government” protesters are carrying flags of Fidel Castro’s original political party, the 26th of July Movement, or 26 Julio. [Edit 15th July: The File Photo has since been replaced with a video in the New York Times article. The AP has also removed the photo from their website].

As more than one Twitter user pointed out, “If it truly is one of the ‘most massive popular demonstrations to protest the government’ since Castro took power, why are the supposed ‘anti-government’ protesters carrying flags meant to symbolize the beginning of Castro’s ascension?” How did the army of fact-checkers of supposedly “reputable” news publications such as The New York Times, Associated Press, and Guardian miss this? 

Whether this is an elaborate conspiracy (as my social media page thinks) or genuine human error, we may never know, but it  underscores a significant problem I have noticed in news media: News publications are neither unbiased nor fully knowledgeable, yet both we and they continue to posit them as such. 

In recent years, major publications have gone through intense soul searching as their intense lack of reliability became apparent. A recent survey found that only 29% of the people surveyed in the US stated that they trust the news. The situation does not seem to be better for other countries either—only 38% trusted the media in India, 36% in the UK, and 32% in the Philippines. 

Gatekeepers of traditional news and news readers have, predictably, reacted very strongly to this. Opening a newspaper anytime will subject you to a whole array of think pieces on what the media can do to regain this trust. These suggestions may range from the absurd (print the first amendment in the US every 4th of July) to the reasonable (make journalists declare all their conflict of interests publicly). However, among these disparate criticisms lies a singular connecting thread—increasing people’s trust in media by reducing bias and opinion, presenting “both-sides” equitably. 

This desire isn’t just limited to journalists, either; multiple focus group interviews have underscored the audience’s desire for impartiality and unbiasedness in their mainstream news. Rather than being told what to feel, audiences prefer their news sources to present them with a wide range of opinions so that they can make their own conclusions. Though there is still a general understanding among the readers that they are attracted to partisan sources (i.e. publications that regurgitate their values back to them), audiences still value neutrality. What people want “is a reliable baseline of impartial, straightforward, factual reporting; beyond this, they can go off to explore opinions elsewhere where they expect to find them.”

However, lately I have found myself asking, is our craving for impartiality even realistic? 

It is understandable that people crave the truth—we do, after all, want to be on the right side of history—but both journalists and consumers seem to realize that unbiased truth cannot exist without erasing humanity. Facts are never truly neutral, they mold forms depending on the context that they are used (or not used) in, the atmosphere surrounding it. 

Writing about the industry’s reckoning, Columbia University professor Michael Schudson states, “It may be time for journalists to acknowledge that they write from a set of values, not simply from a disinterested effort at truth.” I would like to extend his request further: it is also time for audiences to acknowledge that they consume news from a set of values, not simply as a disinterested arbitrator of truth.

A recent example that highlights both the audience and the industry’s complex relationship with facts is the great debate surrounding the “lab leak” theory—the idea that the coronavirus strain rampaging across the world right now is an escaped mutant from a Chinese biology lab. 

Labeled as a sinophobic fringe conspiracy at the start of the pandemic, the regular media were very quick to lambast the theory and its propagator, Donald Trump. A simple Google search of the times “lab-leak” was used between 1st Jan 2019 and 1st Jan 2021 will primarily give you results of publications such as Vanity Fair running articles denouncing Trump for his irresponsible comments. 

This tide is basically reversed after 1st Jan 2021; the same Vanity Fair that ran headlines such as “‘The Discussion Is Basically Over’: Why Scientists Believe the Wuhan-Lab Coronavirus Origin Theory Is Highly Unlikely” recently published an exhaustive “investigation” underscoring how “toxic politics kept the truth from being discussed.”  

And it is not just Vanity Fair. Multiple articles with eye-catching headlines like “Wuhan lab staff sought hospital care before COVID-19 outbreak” from credible sources like Reuters appeared on my feed, painting a picture of nefarious conspiracy. Many of my friends took these recent flurries of articles as a vindication of mistrust for mainstream media and/or mistrust for China. 

When The Wall Street Journal ran articles stating “three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care,” it drastically changed people’s perception. Despite their commitment to present both sides, news sources only underscored the prevalent narrative at that time. In both their coverage of the virus’s origin, it only validated whatever opinion their main audience has—anti-Trump, anti-China, anti-media, anti-Cuba. 

The facts presented in these articles are true. Three researchers working at the Wuhan lab did become sick enough to visit the hospital in November; however, as Justin Ling points out, the Wall Street Journal conveniently forgot to contextualize that “primary care is largely delivered through hospitals, and sick notes are compulsory for time off. Visiting a hospital in Wuhan was the equivalent of a trip to the doctor’s office in the United States.” 

Looking from that context—those three workers out of the hundreds working in the lab showed flu-like symptoms during flu season—the “evidence” becomes a lot less suspicious and more circumstantial. Furthermore, despite the media constantly talking about new evidence, as Ling shows, barely anything new about the disease has been released since early 2020. 

Here lies the fundamental problem with the cult of neutrality: there never was, never is, and never will be anything that is an unbiased source or a discerning reader. What is “truth” to an individual depends not on the publication pursuing the story but rather the context behind the person writing and reading the news. As someone living in Asia, there is no motivation for me to be inherently suspicious of the Chinese government. Truth for me here is in part decided by my circumstances and my political inclinations. 

We, as news writers and consumers, have convinced ourselves that unbiasedness is the highest pinnacle of morality—the more unbiased our information is, the more moral our opinions. But morality is never objective, and by patting ourselves in the back for putting out the most “impartial” news, consuming the most “neutral” perspective, we are only deluding ourselves. 

Our opinions are already made; we are just looking for “facts” to form a narrative supporting it. Hence, whenever publications tout words like “impartiality” while furthering an opinion that is anything but, they only underscore the mistrust already apparent in the minds of the public.

Paribesh Sitoula, a journalism student at Northwestern University in Qatar echoed this opinion, saying, “It’s funny that Twitter labels only [the content of publications like RT and CCTV] as “state-controlled media” when the connotation doesn’t apply to something like the BBC. Every time I see a tweet by WaPo I think it would look pretty funny if it said, “Washington Post, Jeff Bezos-controlled media.”

As more and more young people feel alienated from mainstream publications, people with influence in the industry—both the readers and the writers—need to realize that maybe it is time to let go of their hypocrisy and embrace what journalism really is: storytelling. Without bogging themselves down with the pretense of reporting the objective truth, people should embrace themselves and report with authenticity, whether that be their authentic politics or worldview. Like Sitoula said, if people know what you are feeding them from the very start, they are less likely to get mad.

What now?

There seems to be, however, some light at the end of the tunnel. Young people seem to not only be increasingly aware of the bias but also accepting towards it. The same study by Reuters found that young people aged 18-30 “expressed concern that news brands often force their own ideology on the reader.” Rather, they prefer news media that allows “the audience to develop their own point of view – not necessarily by avoiding opinion, but by presenting multiple opinions, or offering considered rather than polemic evaluation of the news.” 

This trend I see being replicated even among my friends and family. Increasingly for young people, authenticity and honesty seem to matter more than the promise of one source giving them neutrality.

Rather, young people seem to not limit themselves to a singular publication for their ideas. Being informed for them is becoming familiar with a wide range of sources, particularly social media, and making their own opinions from what they read. 

Harrison Linder, a recent graduate interested in journalism, echoed similar sentiments. “I have a wide range of sources from things like Twitter and the Breaking Point Podcast to The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle—but all of them are very biased in one way or another. Newspapers being as cash-strapped as they are, what they say depends on where the money comes from, who in the government they talked to.” 

“That’s why I like getting my news from so many different sources, all of them allow me to make my own opinion on something. Even with their bias, I like how the reporters at these publications care deeply about the issues they are covering. It’s not about covering up airtime, they genuinely care about the issue and it shows.” 

Similarly, when I asked Sitaula what sources he got his news from, he stated similar ideas. “I get my news from smaller publications like Greyzone, BTNewsroom, Al Jazeera English, and also social media like Twitter and Facebook. I follow these smaller journalists because I believe that they have more independence when it comes to selecting their stories, allowing them to give it more priority and nuance. Yes, they are probably biased but they are in no way more biased than the established English outlets that have an international reach.”