An independent, impartial 'product'?

The idea that news can be "independent", "objective" and "impartial" is a problematic one. By Vincent Browne.

It is not the idea of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to attempt to set standards for radio and television news and current affairs to ensure “independence”, “objectivity” and “impartiality”. That was the idea of Eamon Ryan, the instigator of the Broadcasting Act of 2009, and it was this Act which required the authority to do this.

I am not sure Ryan, then minister for communications, energy and natural resources, knew what he was doing, or the questions he was requiring the authority to beg. For “independence”, “objectivity” and “impartiality” are elusive concepts in broadcasting – maybe even non-existent.

The idea of “independence” suggests news and current affairs broadcasts are independent of all vested interests and independent of ideological, political, moral and aesthetic bias.

Let’s start with the issue of where the “news” originates from, for the origin of news is itself compromising of “independence”.

A study conducted a few years ago at Cardiff University, The Quality and Independence of British Journalism, by staff in the school of journalism, media and cultural studies, gave a startling insight into what independence meant not just across the popular press but the unpopular press (ie the elite or “quality” press), along with radio and television.

It states: “We were able to verify that 41 per cent of press articles and 52 per cent of broadcast news items contain PR materials which play an agenda-setting role, or where PR material makes up the bulk of the story.” It goes on to say: “If we add those stories in which the involvement of PR seems likely but could not be verified, we find that a majority of stories (54 per cent of print stories and 58 per cent of broadcast news stories) are informed by PR.”

It goes on to report: “Since the most PR-laden topics are health, business and entertainment, it is not surprising that the main source of PR activity overall is the business/corporate world, which was the source of 38 per cent of broadcast news items. This compares with PR from NGOs and charities – which might be expected to promote a rather different world view – being used in only 11 per cent of press articles and 8 per cent of broadcast news items.”

No similar study has been conducted on the media in Ireland, but it is not plausible that the situation is radically different. So we start from a position where the origin of a large proportion of news stories consists of press releases – hardly sources that can be viewed as “independent”.

What I find disturbing about this is not so much that PR material is the basis of a large proportion of news stories, but that, invariably, this is not stated in the reports and, in many instances, the information is often not independently verified.

There is a reason for this reliance on PR: pressure on journalists to produce “product”. Newsrooms have been pared back here, and the pressure on a smaller number of journalists to product sufficient material for broadcasts or newspapers is all the greater. This is all the more so given the number and duration of news bulletins is more now than formerly – ditto the size of newspapers.

In addition, a large proportion of broadcast news is centred on crime – not on analysis of crime trends, which is rarely conducted, but on specific instances of crime. The source of information on crime stories is almost always within the Garda, and, almost always, this is not stated in crime reports. How can this be regarded as “independent”, when gardaí are often not the most reliable of sources, as recent revelations have reminded us?

Meanwhile, the constraints under which editors and journalists work compromise the supposed “independence” which we supposedly bring to news decisions. There are the pressures to “conform” to what are perceived to be national interests, and particularly not to “rock the boat” at a time of national peril.

Many editors and journalists resist these pressures, but many do not. There are the pressures exerted by “flak”, complaints from “official quarters”, threats of libel actions, threats to be cut off from news sources. There are commercial pressures to deliver a product that will attract an audience that advertisers want to reach. The more “upmarket” that audience is, the greater the necessary compliance, lest upmarket sensitivities and comforts be disturbed.

The big issue, however, is what is regarded as “newsworthy”. A press release containing the speech of an important person, say the president of the Law Society on, say, the regulation of the legal profession, is likely to be regarded as more important than that of a local activist, opposing, for instance, the devastation of the community employment schemes, even though, in my opinion, the latter is of far greater importance than the former.

This issue of “independence” in news and current affairs is problematic, and the authority will have to do a lot of wrestling to resolve this – and even more on the issue of impartiality.

Image top: Valerie Everett.