Is true honesty the price of democratic representation?
This claim was made in 2012 by the Columbia Journalism Review in an article which discussed the necessity for presidential candidates to “adjust their positions over their careers for political reasons.”
During the 2012 presidential elections for the USA, a controversy arose when incumbent president Obama appeared to come out in favour of gay marriage. Which is to say, the president himself was “struggling with the issue” while his vice president came out in favour. Previously, Obama had always opposed the issue. However, back in 2004 he had in fact indicated that he was in favour when he was a candidate for the state senate in Illinois.
The Columbia Journalism Review criticizes the media for framing Obama as someone who ‘evolves’ while referring to his opposing candidate Romney as ‘flip-flopping’. Romney had changed his position numerous times during his years in government and later as a presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012. Clearly, both men changed their tunes when the electorate changed in order to win over voters. The conclusion of the CJR was that politicians simply could not be honest all the time and this was the price to pay in a democracy.
Now maybe it’s just me, but I certainly hope that’s not the only reason why politicians ‘evolve’. When I vote for someone to lead my country, I expect them to be able to change their mind when they become aware of new evidence or developments. The ability to adapt is what has kept our species alive. It would be a truly frightening world if we expected our leaders to have their opinions set in stone and refused to consider alternatives.
Unfortunately, this attitude is reflected in Dutch media as well. For years I’ve read comments in the right-wing media about the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) as the “Dutch Immigrant Party” due to its relaxed stance on immigrant integration. To the point that – according to the right-wing media – Labour seemed to forsake its own social-democratic heritage. However, lately the party has become more strict in this regard and two weeks ago this lead to two members of parlement leaving the party. Imagine my surprise when those same right-wing media published articles criticizing Labour’s party leaders for either betraying their own voters (Jalta) or for being hypocrites by changing their stance (Elsevier by means of Blendle). Shouldn’t they have applauded Labour for standing up to its own principles?
Of course, my surprise wore off when I thought of these incidents in the context of framing and media basis.
According to Entman, framing is.. “selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution” (Entman, 2004, p. 5). This is often done to highlight the interests of elites (Entman, 2004, p. 5).”
Jalta and Elsevier are right-wing media operations which cater to a right-wing audience. Even as they attempt to objectively describe developments that they have historically been arguing for, they will frame it in such a manner that their readers will not consider voting or supporting Labour in the next election.
Everyone is biased. Full disclosure: I’ve spent a year tutoring immigrant children in the ‘Schilderswijk’ in the Hague. Those children gave up their free time in order to gain a better grasp of the Dutch language and school system. It was very rewarding for all involved since their grades and thus chances of getting into good schools improved. However, as a result I am slightly biased both against immigrants who’re not willing to make that effort and against native Dutch speakers who complain about immigrants but don’t give up their free time helping them integrate. I thus support Labour’s attempts to further integration. There is thus a very good chance that in judging the articles mentioned above, I suffer from the hostile media effect.
“The hostile media effect states that supporters of both sides will consider an objective story which details the struggle as biased against them.” – H. van der Kaa (Journalistic DatA Analysis course, 2014)
Are media biased?
If you ask the question this broad, according to Dave D’Alessio in his book ‘Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage, 1948 – 2008′, the answer is bound to be “Yes”. Journalists, editors, publishers, and audiences all have their own biases. However, those actually cancel each other out… both within and across mediums.
Journalists tend to be more progressive, while publishers tend to be more conservative. However, both tend to be careful to suppress their preferences in order to live up to the ideal of journalistic objectivity. In the end however, newspapers and other media cooperations will only survive if they manage to sell their product to the audience and thus it is the audience which has the final say.
Is the audience biased?
Most certainly so… but because there are so many different audiences, there are so many different media. Which is why D’Alessio’s meta-analysis of 60 years of presidential coverage showed that The media is well balanced.
So where does this leave us?
“It is as important to know how people reason incorrectly as it is to know how they reason correctly. Once we understand that, it is possible that we can learn to teach people to reason correctly and accurately.” – Dave D’Alessio
Accept that you are a biased person, accept that your audience is biased… but also accept that both you and your audience crave for news to be both educational and informative and thus as objective as possible. Do not just read the articles, comments and books you happen to agree with. Read the ones that you firmly disagree with. Try to come up with arguments both against and in favor of your own views. Engage with your audience… both your supporters and detractors. You will evolve, your audience will evolve, and so will your political representatives. It is a fact of life, and your work will be all the better for it.
De ontsluiering van de Partij van de Arbeid – Syp Wynia (2014)
Lodewijk Asscher en de gerecyclede onschuld van de Partij van de Arbeid – Joshua Livestro (2014)
Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage, 1948 – 2008 – Dave D’Alessio (2012)
Obama ‘evolves,’ Romney ‘flip-flops’ – Brendan Nyhan (2012)
N.B. Full disclosure: Dave D’Alessio is a friend of mine, and I’ve really wanted to use his book in a blog.:)