technology

Media Bias – Part 1: Technology

3 March 2023

7.2 MINS

Welcome to part 1 of this essay on media bias. About five years ago, I woke up to the bias of the ABC, and ever since then I no longer listen to her at home or in the car, unless it’s ‘Classic FM’! In this essay, I would like to explore the impact of media bias on society at large.

This three-part discussion starts with the most concrete — Part 1: technology, a consideration of the various innovations that have created mass media. Then in Part 2, we will explore human psychology, how we as individuals have responded to mass media. Finally, in Part 3, we will explore sociology, how our various communities and societies have been influenced by mass media.

On 16 November 2020, Casey Chalk wrote of Neil Postman’s prophetic writing about media and society:

Thirty-five years ago, New York University professor of communication Neil Postman predicted the political and social implosion we have witnessed in 2020. In “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (1985), Postman criticised television as a medium of information that, regardless of its content, caused Americans to understand all of public discourse through the lens of entertainment.

Chalk goes on to say:

Our digital devices undermine social interactions by isolating us, as demonstrated by the remarkable artistic work of Eric Pickersgill. Pickersgill photographs deviceless people pretending to have mobile devices in their hands. He says:

“This phantom limb is used as a way of signalling busyness and unapproachability to strangers, while existing as an addictive force that promotes the splitting of attention between those who are physically with you and those who are not.”

Moreover, Postman worried about who most benefited from this technological revolution. He cautioned:

“Years from now, it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organisations, but have solved very little of importance to most people, and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.”

The Printing Press

It is believed that the first printing press was Johann Gutenberg’s, that produced the first printed Bible in what is now Germany, in 1440. Prior to that, books were hand-copied and consequently were relatively few in number, and read by few as most were illiterate.

But with the advent of the printing press, suddenly society changed. For example, the birth of Protestantism was arguably the result of the Ninety-five Theses, propositions for debate, on the back of the printed Bible and the subsequent growth in literacy, which were believed to have been posted by Martin Luther on the door of the Schlosskirche, Wittenberg, 31 October, 1517.

Imagine the revolution in those days. Individuals, families and communities would have hardly known of anything going on in the world other than what they could have seen and heard or been told by eyewitnesses. And again, consider how far and how fast the eyewitnesses would have been able to travel in those days. Naturally, people would be able to know the eyewitnesses first-hand, so the potential for bias would have been small, though I am sure human nature would have loved to have embellished stories to increase the appetite for their stories!

Newspaper

Then came the printed newspaper. The London Gazette claims to be England’s oldest newspaper. Its first edition was published on 7 November 1665 under the name The Oxford Gazette. Apparently, these early editions were posted to subscribers rather than being sold in newsagents. Imagine the revolution they brought: news could now be transmitted hundreds of miles, over a timeframe of a day or two, or perhaps a couple of weeks.

By the end of the 19th century, newspapers had become the source of large profits for their owners — the first ‘press barons’, for example, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), who launched his career by taking charge of his father’s struggling newspaper The San Francisco Examiner. The dissemination of news was clearly a commercial endeavour — it had to be to survive.

Right from the start, media bias was built in, as the editor would be responsible for sales, or they would not last long in their employment. What was included in their newsprint and how they reported it would have a profound impact on the reader’s level of engagement and subsequent sales. Therefore, there was no such thing as unbiased media from the very start, except for the Bible, of course!

Radio and Television

In 1893, Serbian-American Nikolai Tesla demonstrated a wireless radio in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite this demonstration, it was the Italian Guglielmo Marconi who is often credited as the father and inventor of the radio, with his transmission over 2000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901.

The invention of the television was seen by some as the Anti-Christ. It began with a Scotsman, John Logie Baird, born in Helensburgh, near Glasgow. His first television picture was transmitted in 1926 from one room to another. Then in 1927, he successfully sent a moving image along telephone wires from London to Glasgow, and the following year he achieved the first trans-Atlantic television broadcast.

There is no doubt that these innovations were remarkable and had a profound impact on both World War I and World War II, arguably spurred on by the demands of the military for more effective and timely communication and intelligence-gathering. Later, the Vietnam War (1955-1975) was arguably ended by television — the American people in their own homes could see the My Lai Massacre in 1968, which mobilised the anti-war movement.

The World Wide Web and the Mobile Phone

In contrast to radio and television, the www and the mobile phone are not new vehicles for mass communication, but rather they were platforms for personal communication, that would perhaps shrink the world more than any other technology had done before.

1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee, from London, England, while a programmer at the physics laboratory of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), is credited with the invention of the www, a system that would allow computers to publish and access linked documents and multimedia over the Internet.

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was the first handheld mobile phone that allowed people to make calls without the need for a physical cable connection. The first call was made in 1973, by Dr Martin Cooper from Chicago, Illinois.

Both these technologies are intrinsically unbiased; however, we can argue that the geographical delivery of these services has been biased. There is no even distribution of the world-wide-web or mobile coverage across our planet; the haves and have-nots are the results of the operators’ biased, commercial interest.

Digital Technologies

Technological developments from now on can be described as digital without any tangible new object to be held in our hands, but they have definitely added to the mass media menu. For example:

  • 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook
  • YouTube was registered in 2005, by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim
  • Instagram was launched on Apple’s mobile operating systems in 2010
  • Rumble was founded in 2013 by Chris Pavlovski
  • Substack for writers to send digital newsletters directly to subscribers, founded in 2017
  • 2021 video platform Odysee launched, a decentralised, fringe alternatives to YouTube

This has been revolutionary, just as much as the invention of the printing press. These platforms allow the publication and dissemination of information to be in the direct hands of private individuals rather than military, commercial or government corporations. This seems to me to be an example of pushback against media bias.

Media

Media or mass media can be described as any of these entities: newspapers, magazines, television, public broadcasting, commercial radio, music, films, or books. Humanity had no effective media before the invention of the printing press in 1440. But we did have communication; primarily oral, but also body language and the creative arts, visual and musical.

Defining media is very hard. This from Market Business News, for example:

The term media, which is the plural of medium, refers to the communication channels through which we disseminate news, music, movies, education, promotional messages and other data. It includes physical and online newspapers and magazines, television, radio, billboards, telephone, the Internet, fax and billboards.

Or Macmillan Education Limited:

The word media is a plural form of the Latin word ‘medium’ meaning ‘middle ground or intermediate’. Its usage as a word to describe newspapers, radio and other sources of information likely derives from the term ‘mass media‘, which was a technical term used in the advertising industry from the 1920s on.

From these definitions, the following stand out. Media is designed to communicate from platform A to people B, a one-way street. Perhaps mass media imagines itself to be ‘in the middle ground’ and impartial. However, its roots are firmly planted in the advertising industry, as the message is being sold, to support the production of the message, a circular argument.

I suggest that it is in our nature to want to communicate as a species. We are not independent creations, organisms; we are symbiotically connected with our family, our community and our kind. If this is true then, all the innovations of technology we have seen are all expressions of that desire to reach a wider and wider audience. If that is true, then it seems to be inevitable that bias and subjectivity are to be expected, perhaps inevitable, in all our communication.

Technology is always unbiased; operators can’t help their bias

If media bias is inevitable, then we must learn to manage bias. If we don’t know or forget that there is media bias, that’s when we fall into the dangerous territory of the government agenda, the propaganda wars or the advertising webs.

Let me conclude Part 1: Technology with a brief review of some common potential blind spots against media bias:

  1. What topics are reported, and which are ignored. For example, at the time of writing, the rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, USA on 3 February 2023 was hardly mentioned in mainstream media, but social media brought it into the spotlight and eventually dragged mainstream media out into the open. Who manages the public narrative, and the daily news cycle?
  2. What language and what emotions are employed. Who decides when a situation or a news item becomes a crisis? What adjectives are applied to the facts — dangerous, escalating, unprecedented, catastrophic, etc.? What sort of voice, tone and timbre, is used to relay the information? I rate John Pilger as my favourite for being as balanced as he could be in his motivation and the intonation of his narration.
  3. Subliminal advertising. I am not focusing on the script of the commercial breaks on television or radio, but rather their subliminal content, that indoctrinates the audience without their awareness or their permission. I am also talking here about the mores and values depicted in drama and films, and the assumptions surrounding individuals’ aspirations for comfort and affluence.
  4. The soundbite: a brief recorded statement (as by a public figure) broadcast, especially on a television news program. We have become so used to soundbites, they intoxicate us and inhibit us from questioning, thinking, and debating.
  5. The news as entertainment: the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment. Media corporations, chasing ratings, spin their coverage to make us feel good and want to come back for more — that’s media bias.

Whatever the media employed — print, radio, television, film or social media — I would argue there can be no media without bias. It behoves us all to be alert and critical in our thinking on a moment-by-moment basis.

___

Photo by Pixabay.

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3 Comments

  1. Kaylene Emery 3 March 2023 at 10:37 am - Reply

    For some time now I make it my practice to leave my phone at home when ever I go out unless I need it for directions……..
    It is such a satisfying, thing to do – words cant express just how satisfying leaving my phone at home , is !
    However I do wonder how long it will be before leaving my home without it, will be illegal ?

  2. Jim Twelves 3 March 2023 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Kaylene, you pose a very interesting scenario. I do have a smart phone but I turn off the smarts unless on a rare occasion someone prearranges to send me something. It is really ‘liberating’, to only access the internet when at home in the computer room. As for getting directions, may I give a shout out to Sydways and Melways. Sadly they are one of the casualties of the digital age, they have been take over by UBD. Thankfully there is still one physical map supplier!

    • Kaylene Emery 4 March 2023 at 7:55 pm - Reply

      Amazing that you point out Sydways Jim, it was only yesterday that I went to Manly library in search of what I knew as a Gregories.
      They did not have one and the other maps I looked at were not helpful so my task now is to locate and purchase ….regardless of the fact that I struggle to read maps.

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