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June 13, 2017, 2:44 p.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK: shorensteincenter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Ricardo Bilton   |   June 13, 2017

Those disheartened by the way that U.S. media organizations covered the 2016 election likely long for the American equivalent of the BBC: a large, publicly funded broadcast organization free of the commercial pressures that made Donald Trump a permanent fixture of news programs in the year leading up to his victory.

But not even the BBC approach is free of its challenges, as Helen Boaden, a former BBC News and BBC Radio director, writes in a new paper for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. While the BBC is massively well-funded, and built on impartial coverage, its role in the U.K. media environment exposes it to some unique challenges. The same goes for news organizations in the U.S., whose applications of free market principles to news has become both an asset and liability.

Here are a few of Boaden’s conclusions:

In the U.S., “money is an ‘unfailing power.'” Boaden cites the Harvard Kennedy School’s Thomas Patterson, who points out one of the central contradictions of commercially funded journalism: “The press is unusual in being a private business with a public trust. It is obligated by its constitutionally protected position to serve the public interest but driven by its business needs to serve itself.” This contradiction is manifest in many of the most unsavory staples of modern news coverage, including clickbait and sensationalized crime coverage.

The BBC, which does not run ads or accept sponsorships, has traded commercial pressure for political pressure. Its license fee — a $183/year tax paid by TV owners — is a perpetual political issue, particularly among politicians, citizens, and even rival broadcasters who bristle at public funds being used to fund what they see as biased journalism. General directors have to navigate these politics every time they negotiate a new license fee. “It’s an uncomfortable place for an independent news organization,” as Borden writes.

Even the BBC is exposed to the pressures of the news cycle. The BBC may hold itself to a high standard, but it’s staffed by humans, who regularly fall short of its ideals. Television journalism’s bias “against understanding,” as former general director John Birt argued in the 1970’s, is often an issue, too, at the BBC, where the news’ ecosystems emphasis on speed over clarity frequently hurts reporting “The tendency to deliver heat without light, facts without context and sometimes false balance is not absent in the BBC,” Boaden writes.

BBC impartiality and American objective journalism are similar, but distinct. Impartiality is central to the charter of the BBC, which is, unlike U.S. news organizations, forbidden from endorsing candidates or expressing opinions about current events. “At its simplest, the BBC believes that the evidence it brings its audiences is more useful to them than the BBC having an opinion,” said Boaden.

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