[OPINION] End media neutrality

Want to avoid futile debates about neutrality? Admit your biases upfront. It’s a simple enough solution for individuals, but the news media should consider it as well.

The favorite pejorative of online trolls is “biased.” They often use it to question the credibility of a media outlet such as this one, or, sometimes, academics like myself who should be “neutral” in their analysis.

In the handful of times I’ve engaged rabid pro-Duterte trolls, I’ve gotten a version of the argument, “Maybe you’re just biased against the president.” “Of course I am!” I reply. I am biased against the president. Because I’m biased against violence and authoritarianism.

My biases are products of my values, the lenses through which I assess moral and political questions. I cannot help seeing the world through these lenses because I am human: I experience, I feel, I judge. Everyone has biases. Some people are just more open about them.

Want to avoid futile debates about neutrality? Admit your biases upfront. It’s a simple enough solution for individuals, but the news media should consider it as well. Our newspapers and news websites should stop pretending that they just report facts; they should provide us the principles that anchor what and how they report.

We take it for granted that reporters and editors are bound by priestly vows of neutrality. But this vow emerged more from the demands of capitalism than from ethical ones. As American newspapers relied more on advertising in the 19th and 20th centuries, they decided that avoiding bias would make them more money. If you did not take a position for or against anyone, you could receive advertising money from anyone. Today’s readers may be surprised to know that in the late 19th century, many American newspapers were still openly identified as “Democrat” or “Republican.”

In the United Kingdom, newspapers continue to openly identify with economic and political ideals. The Economist is the weekly of choice for advocates of liberal politics and free markets. The New Statesman calls itself progressive and liberal, and readers know it is to the left of The Economist.

But we need not look far for evidence of biased media. In 1888, Filipinos in Spain founded La Solidaridad, which advocated for reforms such as Filipino representation in the Spanish cortes. Almost nothing in the paper was straightforward reportage, but few would doubt that its writers were doing journalism. I wonder what invectives the trolls would have directed the way of Jose Rizal or Marcelo del Pilar. Be like Mocha, Pepe, she tells it like it is without yellow bias. No bayas.

A major problem in Philippine politics is that voters do not vote based on platforms. This is largely because politicians don’t run on platforms. But it is also because the media do not frame debates through coherent worldviews. And more importantly, it is because the media pretend to not have platforms, which not only retards platform-based politics, but also annoys readers who can see through the pretense.

So why don’t we stop pretending? Can The Manila Times admit that it advocates a strong executive and that it is supportive of President Duterte? Can this website admit that it is a bastion of liberal independence and free speech and that its anti-authoritarianism has made it critical of Rodrigo Duterte? I don’t know if the future Inquirer will ever admit that it has become crony media.

Like the newspapers mentioned above, our news media should explicitly outline their political and economic leanings. Our news media should also consider endorsing political candidates during elections, the way newspapers like The New York Times do. These simple acts allow readers to know what to expect when they visit a news website or buy a newspaper. They will serve as acts of good faith.

Of course, I don’t mean that news media should remold the truth to support their positions. A biased media is not a lying media. Fake news is not slanted news; fake news is false news. You can anchor your reporting on principles, while at the same time checking your sources and backing your claims with evidence. This new approach will take getting used to, but we have reached a point when nobody believes in the media neutrality myth anyway. We need something new. And we need to be honest.

The historian Leopold von Ranke famously enjoined those in his guild to “extinguish the self”. Without the self, he believed, historians would be able to record facts objectively. Ranke has rightly been criticized for proposing the impossible. The self will always be there, and it will have opinions and biases.

Rather than extinguishing the self, we should wrestle with it and explore its limitations, celebrating the advantages and limits of subjectivity. We can do this because we are human. Reporters and editors are human too. – Rappler.com

Lisandro E. Claudio (@leloyclaudio on Twitter) teaches history at De La Salle University and hosts Rappler.com’s web show Basagan ng Trip. 

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