Reporting All The Facts

The following is a translation of a Q&A among several commentators at Ming Pao.  The subject is about media bias.  Unfortunately, everyone seemed to have the same opinions and nobody wants to the devil's advocate.

(Ming Pao)  The question was proposed by 柯貴妃.

For the same event, the evening news on the two free television channels took completely different angles.

For the one at 6pm, the headline was the march to fight for universal suffrage.  The report began with the number of people assembled at 330pm in Victoria Park, estimated to be more than 40,000 people.  Then they showed an interview with Anson Chan.  Then they reported the opinions of a member of the Executive Council and national political consultative standing committee member Stanley Ho.

For the one at 630pm, the headline was the march for universal suffrage.  First, there were three live reports from three different locations along the route.  The number of marchers was estimated to be around 200,000.  Then they showed an interview with Anson Chan before the march started, specifically the part when she said that she will "take it one step at a time."  Then they showed her beginning to march from Victoria Park.  Then they reported how people from different walks of life have the same goals.  Then the interviewed spectators, affected businesses owners and people stuck on the trams.  Finally, they reported on what Xinhua said about the march.

As I watched, I was thinking: apart from the courses related to journalism, media, cultural studies and sociology in academies, who really cares about how the news that we receive each day are constructed?  Using this march as an example, on what basis did the news director decide to allocate so many people to gather news?  how were the assignments for the journalists decided?  what are the factors that determine the viewpoints? how are the recorded interviews edited? does the news editor have the final say about the contents?

After the editing process above, we must finally accept that news information must unavoidably have one or several perspectives.  Therefore, although news reports are labeled objective, accurate, fair and balanced, they can never claim that they reflect all the facts.

The functions and purposes of official news organizations often restrict the content and viewpoint of what they can release.  Commercial news organizations are more complicated, because their financial backgrounds and their political and economic interests are intimately connected with each other.  What they say and how they say it cannot be premised solely on reporting the facts.  Perhaps paying attention to what the news does not say or avoid saying may be even more enriching than what we can hear or see.

"Editorial autonomy," "Fourth estate" and "Freedom of press" are the sacred haloes of journalists.  These are inviolable and must be defended.  But do these haloes have absolute standards?  Basically, society has some expectations about journalists with respect to their conduct and the information that they provide.  Otherwise, it would not be the case that different news media have different rankings in the so-called surveys of public confidence and trust.

How many of the hundreds of thousands of people who sit in front of television sets to watch news ever think about such problems sometimes?

Response from 向問天

A long time ago, I heard a 'joke' that causes deep reflection.  After a certain sports meet, a Russian boasted: "In this meet, we were in second place, whereas the Americans were second last."  Wouldn't you think that the Russians were far ahead of the Americans?  Actually, the Russian was not lying.  He just "forgot" to tell you that there were only two countries in the meet!

From this, we see that "everything here is factual" is not enough.  "Having all the facts" is just as important.  Today, the media probably don't make up lies to fool people.  But they may tell you something and not tell you something else.

So do not read just one newspaper.  Otherwise, you will be hoodwinked by one side.

Response from 文心

To reflect the truth is our minimum requirement for news media.  But a single piece of news information will never be the complete set of facts, and there can never be a complete set of facts.  From the priorities and packaging of news programs and newspapers to the selection and presentation of a particular news item, everything was done through consideration and choice.  News organizations hold positions that direct the overall direction of the reporting.  Even the reporters and editors have their own preferences.

There are so many ways for reports to ask questions and to report them, and for editors to sequence, edit or modify those reports.  Precisely because news workers hold such extraordinary "powers," the public have strong moral requirements from them.  I am not concerned about news workers faking news, because the fakery will be discovered eventually.  I am only concerned about biases and partiality in the news to create a single faulty impression, or even to become the mouthpiece for a single view.  

For example "applying for social welfare"="laziness"; "Democratic Progressive Party"="Taiwan independence"; "Lo Wen"="Underneath the Lion Rock" and so on.  After the media "broadcast" them repeatedly, they enter people's minds and become the truth.  These types of impressions are not helpful in getting society to care about these issues and discuss them.  News information is supposed to help society to resolve some knots, but it is now adding more knots that are difficult to untie.

Response from 小勁

When I read 柯貴妃's original question, I immediately think about a word: "Montage."

I never believe in the "absolute objectivity" of news.  柯貴妃 described the way in which two television channels reported on the 12/4 march.  They have sound and picture, and nothing was faked.  But the television editors and reporters "selected" and "edited" the material to get to the finished product in a way that definitely included elements of subjectivity.  Just like montage, the editor strings together a sequence of different images to direct the audience to a pre-defined conclusion.  

No matter how objective the news material was, as soon as the reporters and editors select what they think is worth telling the readers/viewers, the values of the news workers are hidden inside.  Therefore, even though there are objective facts in the news reports, it is an operation with objectivity outside and subjectivity inside.

We often say, "One person's candy is another person's poison."  For the same incident, different people have different interpretations.  This becomes more obviously among our local newspapers.  On the eve of the 12/4 march, Chief Executive Donald Tsang's televised speech (personally, it was an unbelievably bad production) and the newspaper headlines after the march all exhibit this "subjective operation".  

For example, Tsang's speech can be packaged as "threatening" or as "saving the day."  When Anson Chan came out to march, it can be said as "hijacking the pan-democrats" or else as "coming out for universal suffrage."  In truth, to be blunt, there are reasons to get into the media business because the purpose is to "carry forward" one's own beliefs through the media.  That is why one sets up priorities on what was basically objective news in order to highlight what one accepts and demean what one disagrees with.  It is that simple.

At the end of last month, English historian David Irving was arrested in Austria over two of his speeches there in 1989.  In the speeches, he asserted that when the Nazis governed Germany, they did not have gas chambers at Auschwitz.  Therefore, the Austrian government believes that he is a holocaust denier.  In his writings, Irving asserts that the extent of the killing of Jews by Nazis was much less than what most commentators say.  He was gave speeches that Hitler was "totally ignorant" about the killing of Jews.

There is a saying: "Today's news is yesterday's history."  Irving's astonishing comments is not random assertion, but there must be 'data.'  Just like him using what he believes are 'objective' facts to write something so 'subjective,' I also think that since news and history are closely connected, Irving's story can also illustrate that it is impossible to demand news to be 'absolutely objective.'

We are glad that we exist in an era of information overload.  Even if we are not there at the scene, we have at least media which have different viewpoints to help us look at the matter from many angles.  It is the difference among them that moves us to contemplate.

Response from 小杜

When one opens up the course guide published by the Department of Education, it would not be hard to find in the section on critical thinking: "Instruct the student to distinguish between fact and opinion."

What is a fact?  What is an opinion?  When you first hear that, it does not seem hard to tell the difference.   You pick up a newspaper.  The news reports are facts and the editorials are opinions.  It is simple and straightforward.

But if you think deeper, news has facts, but it is not all of the facts; editorials are opinions, but they must be based upon facts.  When you think even deeper, even if you have "all" the facts, when you have to report, nobody can avoid having to divvy up the facts and reassemble them in order to explain the entire matter to the readers and the viewers.

During this process of re-presentation, the news workers' values take hold and certain things are highlighted while other things are suppressed unconsciously as a result of their preferences.  The facts cannot be totally separated from opinion.  But the opinions are often hidden within the facts, and it is hard to reveal them.

You may say that such being the case, is there anything such as truthworthy news?  I believe that there is no absolutely trustworthy news, but there are relatively trusthworthy news.  Otherwise, what is the point of going to study in all these journalism schools all around the world?  Of course, we are the ones who have to decide which news items are relatively trustworthy to us.

Response from 麥田捕手

I personally feel that the 6pm television channel may be more conservative on certain topics.  The 630pm one seems to like to set up a position for the viewers and then used its regular programming method to please the people.  The 630pm channel has plenty of resources, and their popular methods easily wins the ratings and applauses.  For society, this is not necessarily bad.  But I am just cynical enough to think that it seems to be trying to transmit some message to me.  The 6pm channel does not have enough news content (as far as this particular report goes) but it clearly explained the purpose of the march, the process and the positions of different sides.  If the viewer (such as myself) is interested in this piece of news, it is necessary to think more by himself.  Clearly, the commercial media organizations have their own considerations and positions.  Under these circumstances, do the viewers need more space for their own thoughts?  I don't know.

P.S.  It is sad that the people of Hong Kong need to use their own pair of feet to express their opinions.  It is even sadder to participate in a march, because they are turned into a number from various organizations and this number can expand or contract depending on the different needs.