Introduction

‘Successful newspapers reinforce the prejudices of their readers’. Using simplified sociological perceptions and some additional inferences, I discuss this in the context of two contrasting national titles, namely Financial Times and The Independent, and analyse what seems to be the prejudices, attitudes and editorial mindsets of each. The illustration is based on how the biases are demonstrated in specific items taken from issues of each paper and the explanation of possible reasons.

While discussing the biases imposed by newspapers to their audience, we have to face this dilemma: on the one hand, ‘we mostly self-select what we watch, listen to, or read to suit our own interests.’(Richard Alan Nelson, 2003); one the other hand, as mass audience we are part of the process of control and homogenization(Denis McQuail, 1997:13), which means this is not simply a one-dimensional issue that was to look simply at the descriptions which were offered of the world in a specific text, but to look at the social relations which underpinned the generation of these descriptions. In any contentious area there will be competing ways of describing events and their history. Ideas are linked to interests and these competing interests will seek to explain the world in ways which justify their own position. So ideology (which we defined as an interest-linked perspective) and the struggle for legitimacy go hand in hand. (Greg Philo, 2007)

 

Practical limitations to media neutrality include the inability of journalists to report all available stories and facts, and the requirement that selected facts be linked into a coherent narrative. Since it is impossible to report everything, some prejudices are inevitable. According to Hofstetter(1976: 34), prejudices occur ‘when some things are selected to be reported rather than other things because of the character of the medium or because of the incentives that apply to commercial news programming.’

 

The social context of newspaper biases

Some scholars have identified at least three major conceptions of the audience. First, the audience is the assemblage of readers, viewers or listeners, information receivers of the mass media (Schramm, 1954). Secondly, the audience is an aggregate of the consumers of media products with differentiated tastes in a marketplace, whose selective consumption of and active participation in media production constitutes a possibility of membership of a democratic society (Billings, 1986: 200–13.). Thirdly, the audience is an institutionalized role relationship in the market-based media system that involves marketers, media producers and consumers of media products. (Turow, 1997) This indicates when we discuss the prejudices of media and audience it is impossible to avoid talking about the social context such as democracy, marketplace and different nationalities.

 

The theory that foreign journalism biases is more obvious and typical was first introduced by Galtung and Ruge (1965). They scrutinized the news presented in four different Norwegian newspapers from the Congo and Cuba crises of July 1960 and the Cyprus crisis of March-April 1964. A dozen additional hypotheses are then deduced from the theory and their social implications are discussed. Mainly, those hypotheses can be condensed as: First, The lower the rank of the person, the more negative the event is; Second, the more distant the nation, the more negative the event is especially when it happens in undeveloped countries in dire situations.

 

In other words, western media is often criticized in the rest of the world (including Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East) as being pro-Western with regard to a variety of political, cultural and economic issues. Edward W. Said (1997:25) said: The general basis of Orientalists thought is an imaginative and yet drastically polarized geography dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger, ‘different’ one called the Orient, the other, also known as our world, called the Occidental or the West.

 

But it has been an unexamined assumption that since Europe and West advanced into modern scientific age and freed themselves of superstition and ignorance, the march must have included oriental world. (Ibid) Therefore, when covering news of the non-democratic or undeveloped countries, the newspapers are unavoidably setting the West and Orient opposed and there are always apparently imbalance covering of their assumed Orient.

 

How “balanced” news can be depends in part on the area of news. On issues where the state is very sensitive, such as in coverage of Northern Ireland in the period of the ‘troubles’, the news could become almost one-dimensional-alternatives were reduced to fragments or disappeared altogether (Miller, 1994). In the controversial case of Tibet, the British newspapers boasting their ‘justice’ and ‘balance’ became the trouble makers and almost all the reports are ‘one-dimensional-alternatives’ with prejudices against current Chinese government. Among these newspapers, Financial Times and The Independent’ are two typical titles.

 

Financial Times and The Independent’s covering of independent protest in Tibet

According to the online search engines of FT and The Independent, from 1st Mar to 1st Apr 2008 there are totally 112 results of ‘Tibet’ in Financial Times and 75 results in The Independent, which is not a small number.

 

From all these articles, it is apparent that the coverage of China has distorted the truth of things happened in Tibet and imposed drastically negative effects on the British public, which is implying: something very bad and vicious is now happening in China. One of the direct consequences is that mobs and gangs in Tibet act more insanely to produce the incidents and ‘news’ that fit the taste of the western audience. And the further influence of it, which derives from the distortion and dissemination of wrong information about Tibet, will lead to unjust political judgment about China.

 

Apart from the obvious distortion when covering Tibet, British daily newspapers choose a biased set of discourse methods to present the news in Tibet and their unconspicuous implications will undoubtedly exert a more subtle influence on the readers.

 

  • The common prejudices imposed on audience

According to UKChinese.com (2008), more than half of articles concerning Tibet they surveyed use the words with negative shade, such as ‘repression’ and ‘seal off’, to describe the reaction of Chinese government and army. However, as to the mobs incurring the violence they often use ‘Tibetan people’, ‘protesters’, ‘dissidents’, ‘peaceful campaigners’ or some other neutral terms rather than emotional ones. (My Tibet: Secret report from the roof of the world, The Independent, March 30th 2008)

 

Without a full comprehension of the cause and consequences of Tibetan incident, it seems that journalists had begun narrating it in light of their pre-existing ideologies and notions about Tibet as the suppression of pro-democratic movement. In all the news articles I surveyed, more than one third compare Chinese army to ‘flood’ using such phrases as ‘pour into’ and so on. But, in the very beginning, the West media’s reporting has been based on overseas Dalai Lama and his clique’s sources. These are not first-hand source information, but newspapers have been using them without questioning their reliability.

 

Besides, when words like ‘dead’ and ‘killed’ appear in the articles, it is more often than not connected with ‘Tibetan people’ or ‘suppression of government’, barely mention about the casualty of ‘ethnic Chinese’.

 

In some cases, the coverage of Tibet is directly or indirectly connected with Beijing Olympic Games and the ceremony of Olympic torch, through articles like Carrying a torch for China in Tibet (Financial Times, March 20th 2008), The Olympic threat to China (Financial Times, March 31st 2008) and China tries to shrug off shadow of Tibet as torch comes to Beijing (The Independent, April 1st 2008) and so on the Tibetan independency, military suppression and campaign against Beijing Olympic Games have been woven altogether and presented as a totally negative image of China.

 

When only one or two titles are doing this, the issue is not that big but when most national titles follow the same ideology whilst covering Tibet, it is apparent for us to see the political tendency and ideological stance behind it and imagine what the landscape of China is going to be in the views of British audience after reading these reports. On the one hand, the violating conflicts in Tibet have been generally reported as ‘holocaust’ inflicted by Chinese government; on the other hand, however, the fact that mobs and Tibetan protestors killed innocent ethnic Chinese is entirely unreported.

 

From March 17th onwards, the frequency of descriptive words about the event itself has been waning steeply while some other political issues which the western media is apt to discuss about, such as human rights, government and modernization in China, have been raised. The number of reviews such as Timeline: Tibet-China relations (Financial Times, March 17th 2008) and articles of that nature is increasing obviously.

 

Richard McGregor and Jamil Anderlini from Financial Times (March 19th 2008) did one of their discussion of Tibet on the basis that ‘calibrating public opinion is difficult in China because of strict controls on the media and internet’ and this directly made the Chinese unsympathetic to the Tibetan cause. Unlike the instancy of pure news events, the discussion of them will exert continuing effects on their audience and ideologically penetrate into public consciousness. Therefore, gradually and eventually, these issues will transfer into chronological motif shaping the audience’s general impression and judgment towards China.

 

  • The different of prejudices between these two titles

It is palpable that the general prejudices of the two contrast national titles are the same-very negative and they automatically put themselves and their readers in the side of justice and human nature. But there also exist different stances towards China between the two newspapers.

 

Headlines such as China prepares for crackdown by clearing Tibetan capital of witnesses (The Independent, March 18th 2008) are quite ubiquity when we look into the recent coverage of British newspapers about Tibet. With the implication of aggrandizing the factual death number and ‘bloody suppression’ and the assumption that news from Chinese media is untrustworthy and phony, they tactfully juxtapose the death number and the ‘pouring in’ and ‘killing’ of Chinese army in order to establish an association between the casualty and garrison of Chinese army and thus induce the audiences to equalize the death number to the total number of protestors.

 

What is more, newspapers such as The Independent chose to use the misleading words like ‘massacre’ and ‘genocide’ (The Independent, March 17th 2008) and some of them quite irresponsibly compared it to ‘Tiananmen Square incident’ in 1989, making the impression of fierce conflict and forbidden of information in Tibet, which will grasp readers’ attention when they ‘scoop out’ some ‘shocking news’ with ‘big headlines’.

 

Jezza Neumann, a reporter at The Independent, argued in one article that he had to be disguised and under cover while working as a journalist in China because that the truth is totally forbidden there and he and his friends have to find ways to avoid official surveillance and the Chinese police. He even described such a dramatic scenario: ‘During an interview we were conducting, there was a knock on the door. When the interviewee thought he recognised a man outside as a member of the secret police, we all ran off in different directions. I ate the piece of paper with the contact phone numbers on, a piece of paper that we had previously kept in Tash’s sock.’ When everybody is arguing the help to reveal the real truth of Tibet, in the perspectives of journalistic justice one would ask: truth for whom?

 

Undoubtedly, the truth is designed for the western readers’ favor. As has been noted by Zaller, journalists seek routinely to cover non-emergency but important issues by means of coverage that is intensely focused, dramatic, and entertaining, ample opportunity for expression of opposing views. Reporters may use simulated drama to engage public attention when the real thing is absent. In this case, the breaking in of the Chinese police is the best drama which stimulates readers’ interest. As with a real burglar alarm, the idea is to call attention to matters requiring urgent attention, and to do so in excited and noisy tones. ‘News would penetrate every corner of public space so few could miss it.’ (Zaller, 2003)

 

Possible reasons behind the prejudices and suggestions

Greg Philo (2007) said the concept of the journalistic theme is an assumed explanation which gives a pattern or structure to an area of coverage. For example, the theme that strikes were to blame underpinned whole processes of news reporting. It has been explained by C. Wright Mills in a sociological way: the first rule for human understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have personally experience is always indirect. (1967: 405-6) The crucial point is, thereby, that the pattern of coverage and the subjects that it highlights can assume the explanation even without it being directly stated. In a nutshell, the compiling process of journalism is, in some respect, a subordinate to its ideology.

 

If reporters don’t actually need to go out and get the first-hand material, journalism would become a monotonous conglomeration of information. According to research team at Cardiff University’s school of journalism, in Britain, 80 per cent of news stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or material from Press Association, and a further 8 per cent contained unclear source they are unable to trace. In other words, only 12 percent per cent of stories where researchers could say that all the material are completely generated by the reporters themselves. (John Lanchester, 2008) That is to say, most newspapers are rewriting the copies they get from other resources, refining it into the formation they need. This could explain why the basic points of different newspapers’ coverage about Tibet are more or less the same.

 

At the same time, most of the media in the UK are commercial institutions in their own right, so the need for market share-to gain viewers and readers-is a paramount concern. Market direction is another important comprising element directs the way news articles are compiled. For example, in Financial Times, which has the 53% of white collar social classes readership and 72% of male readership (Bobby Duffy and Laura Rowden, 2005: 20-12), the articles about killings and arsons are way less than the ones in The Independent. In other words, The Independent (with a comparatively low readership of male and whiter collar social classes) is using the political and violent prejudices as a ‘selling point’ to attract the attention of middle classes and focus on new market of readership.

 

Of course, showing a relationship between readership and views does not necessarily show that newspapers are influencing views, rather than people choosing newspapers that reflect already formed opinions. Those who supply information to the media certainly intend it to have an impact, but they are still aware of the contexts within which their messages will be received.(Greg Philo, 2007) So what is supplied will itself be shaped by an anticipation of the reception process as well as by an understanding of the likely response of different elements of the media.

 

George X.J. Sun

 

References

 

Bobby Duffy and Laura Rowden (2005) You are what you read? How newspaper readership is related to reviews, MORI social research institute

 

C. Wright Mills (1967) “The Cultural Apparatus,” in Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, ed. Irving Louis Horowitz, Oxford University Press

 

C. Richard Hofstetter (1976) Bias in the News: Network television news coverage of the 1972 election campaign, Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

 

Clifford Coonan, Dalai Lama attacks ‘cultural genocide’, The Independent, March 17th 2008 [Online] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/dalai-lama-attacks-cultural-genocide-796795.html

 

Clare Dwyer Hogg, My Tibet: Secret report from the roof of the world, The Independent, March 30th 2008 [Online] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/my-tibet-secret-report-from-the-roof-of-the-world-802630.html

 

David Miller (1994) Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, propaganda and the media, London: Pluto.

 

Denis McQuail (1997) Audience Analysis, London: Sage

 

Edward W. Said (1997) Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world, London: Vintage Books

 

Greg Philo (2007) Can discourse analysis successfully explain the content of media and journalistic practice?, Journalism Studies, 8(2),175–196

 

Jezza Neumann, ‘It’s hard to explain that fear in your gut’, The Independent, March 31st 2008 [Online] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/jezza-neumann-on-undercover-reporting-its-hard-to-explain-that-fear-in-your-gut-802670.html

 

Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge (1965) The Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers, Journal of Peace Research, 2(64), 64-85

 

John Lanchester (2008) Riot, Terrorism etc, London Review of Books, 6 March, 3-4

 

John Zaller (2003) A New Standard of News Quality: burglar alarms for the monitorial citizen, Political Communication 20(2),109–131.

 

Joseph Turow (1997) Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

Richard Alan Nelson (2003) Tracking Propaganda to the Source: Tools for Analyzing Media Bias, Global Media Journal 2(3), [Online] http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/cca/gmj/fa03/gmj-fa03-nelson.htm

 

Richard McGregor and Jamil Anderlini, West’s perception of Tibet angers Beijing, Financial Times, March 19th 2008, [Online] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/229ac4d6-f5d8-11dc-8d3d-000077b07658.html

 

UKChinese.com (2008) Tibetan incident: Be aware of the British Newspapers (in Chinese) [Online] http://www.ukchinese.com/www/43/2008-03/375.html

 

Wilbur Schramm (1954) The Processand Effects of Mass Communication , Urbana: University of Illinois Press

 

Victoria Billings (1986) “Culture by the Millions: audience as innovator”, in: Sandra J.Ball-Rokeach and Muriel G. Cantor (Eds), Media, Audience, and Social Structure ,Newbury Park

 

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