Written by Robert MacFarlane
Throughout the pandemic we’ve been glued to our TV’s, phones, computers and radios, eager for insight into the world that’s been denied to us. As such, more than ever our perception of current events has been based on the language used by media organisations and journalists. While journalists have a well-known responsibility to ‘report the facts’, the language used alongside informative facts and figures leads to a skewed representation of reality. Protests, through promoting conversations about divisive topics, have provided an insight into the inherent bias within media organisations. 2020 has seen a number of demonstrations and in 2021 the most recent examples of protest follow the death of Sarah Everard and the government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill announcement.
Like many of the protests reported on over the past year, the ‘Kill the Bill’ protest last Friday started peacefully but turned violent in the presence of armed police. Media bias subsequently manifested in reports implying that responsibility for the violence rested solely with the protesters. For example, The Sun repeatedly refers to the protesters as a ‘mob’. Although most articles eventually acknowledge that only a minority of protesters were to blame. Of course, there exists bias on all parts of the political spectrum. The Telegraph, widely considered to be right leaning, published an article headline on 27th March that reads, ‘Right-wing protests ‘more likely to be criticised because of liberal biases’’. There have also been calls to defund the BBC, with Brexit supporters believing the organisation harbours an inherent liberal bias. It comes as the BBC is set to undergo huge restructuring, which will see departments relocated out of London to become ‘a genuinely UK-wide organisation’, according to director general Tim Davie.
Following the ‘Kill the Bill’ protest last Friday, police retracted what were revealed to be false claims that two officers suffered broken bones. However, even if biased or inaccurate reporting is corrected, the damage has already been done because people are unlikely to read about the same piece of news twice. As was the case with the Bristol protests, although the correction has been reported by major publications such as the BBC, Independent, and Guardian, some people will still believe and propagate an inflated version of the truth.
Political bias in the media is nothing new. A 2010 study on the protest coverage of five major US newspapers over 40 years revealed that media reports often portrayed protests as nuisances. This usually manifested with articles talking about how the protest causes a disruption of everyday life – road closures, loss of business etc. The study argues that this reporting detracts from the role protests play in our democratic process. As Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote last June following the George Floyd protests, “The role of protest is to publicize grievances from people who typically exist outside of traditional power structures”.
This creates what is known as the ‘protest paradigm’, where the media’s negative portrayal of protest leads to an escalation in tensions, often resulting in more extreme forms of activism. A common cause of protest is that people don’t feel like their concerns are being heard. Kill the Bill protests have been happening over the country for more than a week now and don’t show any signs of stopping. In his book ‘Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language’, Norman Fairclough explains that language is key in outlining the power dynamics within society. “Access to the media is most open to socially dominant sectors, both as ‘reliable sources’ and as ‘accessed voces’ appearing in represented discourse and interviews”, he says. Biased reporting is consequently one of the chief ways the media exercise their control over societal discourse.
In January, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, was heavily criticised for referring to the US capitol riots as ‘scuffles’. Her impartiality was questioned, with many arguing her reporting downplayed the severity of the situation. Dr Hannah Murray, lecturer in US Literature at Edinburgh University tweeted that Kuenssberg’s comments were “grossly irresponsible”. This falls under a common criticism of the BBC, that as a nationally funded publication it reports in line with the views of the government. Kuenssberg previously faced allegations in 2016 accusing her of biased reporting against the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in the run up to local elections. The language used by the BBC reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, compared with subsequent riots by far-right activists, led many to question it’s journalistic integrity yet again. The use of the term ‘counter-protesters’ for the latter implied that their actions were reactionary and therefore justified.
Another area that has highlighted the importance of online language during lockdown is the rise of conspiracy theories. Many of these have centred around Covid-19 and the safety of vaccines, both subjects steeped in scientific terminology. Talking to the American Psychological Association, Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the university of Kent, says that our increased online presence has led to more extreme theories to help people understand science-based news. “People’s attitudes have become stronger as a result of interacting and sharing and consuming this information on social media and on the internet generally”, she says. Another driving force behind conspiracy theories could be due to people’s distrust of the media, stemming from a history of bias brought to light by the reporting on pandemic protests.
Ultimately, media organisations are run and staffed by people like you and me, and a writer’s feelings on a topic often manifest in the minute details. Publications write for their audience, so the onus is on us to broaden our news horizons and learn the language of bias. This past year has taught us it’s time to accept the inherent bias that exists within all of us, and it seems people are getting wise to the political language of the media. A placard at the 31st March Kill the Bill protest reads, ‘Democracy: what an incredible nuisance’.