The Impossibility of Unbiased Media

No matter what happens, no matter changes in society, and no matter how people try, no unbiased media outlet will ever exist, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.

The problem with the concept of an unbiased media is a simple: there’s too much information in the world so it has to be filtered. Every person is going to have a distinct set of filters, so the filter applied by an ideal journalist will differ from the filter of any member of their audience.

The ideal journalist must look at a story and determine what facts to investigate to understand it. The ideal journalist must decide which lines of inquiry are potentially relevant and how much effort it will take obtain them. The ideal journalist must also consider the time and monetary restraints they face as a part of their job.

Once the ideal journalist has assembled the potentially relevant facts, the ideal journalist must then determine which of the facts are relevant facts before synthesizing them into a report.

There are two distinct layers at which the ideal journalist must act as a filter: determining which facts to procure and determining which facts to pass on to their audience.

The fact of the matter is that those filters, which are absolutely required for the ideal journalist to do their job, are necessarily biased. Prioritizing valuable information over non-valuable information is an inherently biased action. The way in which the ideal journalist assigns value to information is their bias.

The other important thing to recognize here, is that there is no one-true way of prioritizing information. Even though it should go without saying I feel the need to add that not all information prioritization schemes are equally good either. A good information prioritization is, ideally, aimed at the truth. Scott Adams would point out that a human’s information prioritization filter is geared towards self-preservation. With all our human foillables of not being able to create ideal information prioritization filters and having filters which aren’t necessarily tuned in the direction of the truth, we cannot assume that any particular information filter possessed by a person is the correct one.

With all that said, an ideal journalist, who endeavors to seek and report the truth of the matter without favor towards any of the parties involved, simply cannot accomplish their goal. The ideal journalist is beset with imperfect means of valuing information in both the gathering and reporting phases.

Another, similar problem which prevents unbiased journalism is the process of story selection. Much like the ideal jorinalist, the ideal editor must consider all possible stories and decide which are worth the effort to investigate and publish. The ideal editor is faced with an even more subjective task than the ideal journalist: determining which stories deserve his team’s limited attention and prioritizing them within the publication. Which stories deserve attention is simply not something that can be accomplished without imposing bias. The ideal editor might bias themselves towards the majority, or their readership, but that is a bias nevertheless.

One might suggest the solution to the problem of journalists with imperfect information filters is to get a pool of journalists with lots of different information filters and hope they balance each other out over time. That’s been done, but it doesn’t eliminate bias from stories, nor does it negate the influence of editors. It does not go near the weight applied by the people hiring the journalists and editors in the first place, who have their own set of impossible problems to deal with.

An unbiased media or media organzation is simply impossible. Many people would like to think otherwise because a truly unbiased institution would be indisputable because it, tautologically, only delivered truth. That’s why this fiction of an unbiased media needs to be buried, even if the media were full of people relentlessly seeking the journalistic ideal, it would still suffer from bias.

One thought on “The Impossibility of Unbiased Media”

  1. You didn’t define what you mean by unbiased. Perhaps there are some meanings of the word that admit of solution, or at least in some set of cases. Consider unbiased reporting about an auto accident. Is it obvious that the journalist will favor one driver over another? What exactly would that ‘favoring’ consist of?
    If you concede that reporting on an auto accident can be done in an unbiased fashion, then the door is open to finding out which types of reports can be unbiased and which cannot, if any. This approach is more methodical than simply expressing feelings, but would produce more meaningful insights.

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