Printing in practice and the beauty of bias

Image credit: Daniel R. Blume via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things we try to avoid in the high-octane, cut-throat world of student journalism is having a go at each other. We actually quite like each other. We even went for dinner once. I know. Radical.

Indeed, we read each other’s work – we’re all in the same game, heading for the same jobs, building the same networks, so it would make sense to keep an eye on each other, and The Tab’s Charlie Bell even sends us letters from time to time. Reading Raisa Ostapenko’s ‘Can the news ever be neutral’ in Friday 13 February’s issue of Varsity (entitled 'The importance of neutrality' online) made for a conundrum, and raised a good few questions.

Journalism is a profession with immense power. Despite declines in print circulation, newspapers and news outlets hold immense sway over how we perceive the world around us. I don’t need to go into detail, but can probably just say the words Daily Mail and ‘immigrants’ and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

With that in mind, the very question ‘Can the news ever be neutral?’ is incredibly important – I don’t disagree with Raisa there. That being said, it’s likely that we come at the question from very different perspectives. When Raisa argues that “subjectivity [...] has no place in news reporting” and that “our objectivity separates us from propagandists”, she’s got a point, but she’s also missed the point.

As an editor of a newspaper of any size, from a humble student weekly like The Cambridge Student to the beasts of The Guardian, and The Sun, you’re constantly faced with crucial decisions that can completely colour your coverage of any given event. On a micro scale, you have to choose with which part of the story you ‘lead’. On our front page last week, we reported on the number of individuals intermitting over the past three years and how this affects various reported drop-out rates.

We could have focussed on the vast disparity between colleges, and the fact that mature colleges showed much higher rates of intermission. Instead, we pushed to lead on the University ‘angle’, even though it was much more complicated, and there were those both within and outside of our editorial team who advised us against it.

On a macro scale, we choose what appears on the front page of the paper every week. A lot of this is done on the back of requests submitted to colleges and the University under the Freedom of Information Act. As public bodies have 20 working days to respond to these requests, we have to plan far in advance which questions we want to ask, and whose affairs we want to investigate.

So far this term, we’ve taken on the University, challenging the limited scope of their living wage pledge, and we’ve questioned the statistics surrounding drop-out rates and intermitting students. We could have followed different lines of enquiry, submitted different requests, and ‘splashed’ on different stories.

To say that “our duty is to present untarnished facts that allow people to form well-informed opinions” is to miss a fundamental stage in the production process of any piece of journalism.

In order for information to be readable, it has to be presented in a certain way, which inevitably means that some facts will be given greater weight, some will be omitted to keep within the allotted word count, and some will be juxtaposed with other information or reaction in challenging ways.

These decisions are made on multiple levels. Practically, you have to consider your audience: what are readers interested in? What will make them stop and pick up a copy of the newspaper? If your paper is for sale, what will make the average person hand over their hard- earned cash for the privilege of reading your newspaper?

On a personal level, you have to think about what ethical and political principles guide your work. For The Cambridge Student as a student newspaper, do we want to ‘punch down’ by exposing the dirty depths of student activist groups and permanently damage their often worthy causes?

Or, do we want to do our best to hold the vastly wealthy and powerful institutions that govern our lives and our studies to account, and in doing so try and enact positive change through wherever we can?

For Raisa to tell us that such “personal convictions” are “a betrayal of the fundamental, ethical principles of the profession: impartiality, fairness, and potentially even accuracy” is bizarre.

For most people working in “the profession”, accuracy is by far the most important of these. Even aside from the thorny and qualified reality of ‘freedom of the press’ thanks to the UK’s surprisingly stringent media law, inventing grand ideas like the “right to be informed human beings” certainly doesn’t help anyone.

I’ll happily say it, if you want me to: The Cambridge Student is biased. So is every publication you’ve ever read. The process of journalism is one of decision after decision after decision, and to believe otherwise is naïve and intensely impractical.

Embrace it, and use your bias for good. 

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