Unbiased is Different Than Nonpartisan
Jan 31, 2011

Unbiased is Different Than Nonpartisan

An important distinction to be made when studying the news media is between being biased and being partisan. In particular, a media source can be entirely nonpartisan while retaining significant biases. Moreover, the very act of attempting to be nonpartisan turns out to create a strong bias.

A stalwart of nonpartisan news is to give equal representation to both sides. For example, one might - as so many AP news stories do - try and get a couple sentences from representatives of both parties to comment on a political story. If one gives unequal presentation (such as giving consistently more sentences to one party than another) that is a partisan bias. However, equal representation not only doesn't eliminate all biases it actually introduces them.

The problem is that objective facts and logical deductions is not the goal any longer, nonpartisanship is. Comprehensive fact and logic based analysis of a situation that overwhelmingly favors one side over the other is considered partisan - and hence discouraged - but in actuality this is precisely the non-biased presentation. Biased media reporting isn't about whether or not one is favoring a side, it is about whether the reporting is actually true. When a news story quotes two differing sides it rarely challenges the content or framing of the politicians answers, even when they are directly contradictory over verifiably objective facts or logical considerations. This creates a bias where the objectives of equal representation and not unduly supporting or attacking one political side means a media that is distinct from more objective reporting that can actually take a partisan presentation not because it is partisan but because it is true.

The attempt to be nonpartisan is particularly damaging in the way it forces a framing of the debate as existing between the goal posts of the partisan divide. Issues in between the partisan divide - where they disagree - get discussed in this context but issues outside it with wider goal posts get dropped. To include analysis significantly to the left, say, of the Democratic party in the US would be considered giving a partisan emphasis to democrats unless it was balanced with far right commentary. What that balance is, where the center point is, and how far away the goal posts are happen to all be things that are determined not by independent objective considerations (to the extent that that is possible) but by the partisan nature.

This bias that is introduced is sometimes dominated by the partisan biases the do exist, such at Fox or MSNBC in the US. However, for news that is trying hard to be nonpartisan this "nonpartisan bias", as I shall call it, can dominate. Consider the case of the CBC which some conservatives claim has a liberal bias. Even if true, it is hardly pronounced but let us just take this for granted. The bias introduced from deliberate (and indeed mandated) nonpartisanship completely dwarfs any minor liberal bias it may or may not have.

These various mechanisms illustrate part of how attempting to be non-partisan as a goal in and of itself turns out to introduce strong bias. This "non-partisan bias" is dangerous for it limits the scope and skews the presentation of news and opinion in the media.  The media tends to be very self praising of its supposedly objective nonpartisanship. As we have seen, granting this - although often even that is untrue - does not mean the media is unbiased; indeed, quite the opposite. 

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