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Why the same news is covered differently

Why the same news is covered differently

Let’s face the truth. The media suffers from its own predispositions, ideological slants and preferences that forces it to present the same news with different perspectives and angles. There is actually very little people can do about it; even politicians feel hapless and exasperated with the media reportage and analysis nowadays. Just ask Jeremy Corbyn how he feels about The Guardian and The Observer or what Trump thinks of CNN and The New York Times!

So why is the same news covered differently? Why do different newspapers and channels give a different spin to the same news events? Is it purely down to the unconscious bias of journalists or is it those that own the publications pulling the strings? The answer is far more complex and difficult to answer than you can imagine. A closer scrutiny, however, reveals ideological leanings, vested interests, political affiliations of media owners or the ownership structure responsible for the situation.

All media houses have a specific ideological slant or political leaning, be it liberal, conservative, centrist, centre of the right, far rightwing or far leftwing. Media ownership structure and corporate influence play a significant role in news coverage, presentation and media bias. So, when Jeff Bezos controls The Washington Post and Mukesh Ambani in India holds a majority stake in the CNBC News 18, although neutral coverage and partiality is expected, there are still nuanced biases present within these organisations as a result. This is especially prevalent in many developing countries where a select few hold direct or indirect control over the media business. For instance, Dayanidhi Maran, Shobhna Bharthia and the late Jayalalithaa own the most powerful and influential media houses in India which affects on their news coverage. If we go back to the US 2016 Presidential Elections, different news channels covered the presidential debate on predictable lines. A study by Daniel Schultz, a media researcher, revealed Fox News focused more on Donald Trump and replayed the clips of his stronger moments in debates time and again.   MSNBC, which is considered to be a liberal counterbalance to Fox News, on the other hand, concentrated on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party presidential candidate.

Cultural contexts and ideological boundaries play a critical role in shaping news coverage. The Arab Spring ⁠— the series of anti-government protests and armed rebellions which spread across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010’s⁠— serves as a good reference. Though Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China are geographically close and have cultural similarities, their coverage of the event was starkly different. Different news media portrayed the event according to the confines of their socio-political constructs and ideological boundaries. Another factor to consider is the role that selection bias plays in the news as a result of cultural and ideological differences. A local newspaper based in the UK probably wouldn’t cover a story about a new bakery opening in Shanghai because it's not relevant to its target audience. Selection bias (also known as gatekeeping bias or agenda bias) can also be much  more malign, where stories are selected or deselected on ideological grounds. This is especially prevalent when focussing on political actors and the coverage of policy issues. Publishers and editors have a responsibility to inform readers ⁠— making rational editorial decisions to ensure the best selection of content. However, the differences between editorial responsibility and selection bias are hotly debated and some would argue that they are one and the same.

The news media doesn’t operate in a social-political vacuum. News reporters, like all of us, carry unconscious biases and they can be fundamentally predisposed towards a particular viewpoint or ideology. Being non-ideological and apolitical sounds better on paper, but it’s rather impractical in reality. For instance, an anti-government protest can be dubbed as people’s frustration against a government or a deviant behaviour of a mob. It depends on the opinion of a journalist.

Media culture can also be partially blamed for this since journalists tend to give extra weight to government and institutional sources. This is beginning to change with the ubiquity of the internet. A large amount of what happens in the world is captured on our smartphones and shared on social channels - sometimes live - but almost always before a journalist can show up with some cameras and bag a story. User-generated content adds another component to the editorial responsibility vs selection bias debate - highlighting the caveats and pitfalls of necessary authentication and verification which can be forgone for the sake of swift news content generation:

KTVU News announcing fake pilot names supposedly originating from a 4chan post

So the next time you read a news article, don’t just take it at face value. Bear in mind who wrote it, the news publisher it came from, their cultural and ideological predispositions  and the people behind the publisher and you’ll get a better picture as to why the article covers a topic the way it does.

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