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Jan. 30, 2023, 2:01 p.m.

This report sees journalistic “bias” less as partisanship and more as relying on too-comfortable habits

“The first step is to accept that broad impartiality brings a stronger obligation to look.”

When people say the news is biased, what do they mean? Versions of the critique can range from the cartoonishly simple to the paralyzingly complex.

On one end of the spectrum lie straightforward claims of journalistic corruption. (“George Soros pays reporters to write fake news!” “No reporter can tell the truth without getting fired by their corporate masters!”) On the other, there’s room for nuance. (Who was in the room when that story was pitched? What were the underlying assumptions that shaped it, and what drove those assumptions? What perspectives weren’t considered important enough to seek out, or understand, or publish?)

It’s easy for journalists to get so annoyed at the cartoonish claims of bias that they ignore all the other ones. Nobody likes to be told they aren’t doing their job well. So the critiques that bother to dive deeper — to complicate the mechanics of bias — are worth paying special attention to.

That’s why I’d like to highlight a new report from the U.K. today that seems to do just that. It has the thoroughly bureaucratic title of the Review of the Impartiality of BBC Coverage of Taxation, Public Spending, Government Borrowing and Debt and it is, um, a review of the impartiality of BBC coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt. Important, nation-shifting topics all — but ones notoriously difficult for news audiences to understand (much less enjoy).

The review did not find any systemic political biases in the BBC’s economics reporting — in the sense that it consistently favored one party’s views or others. But what it did find is more interesting. (All emphases mine.)

We found widespread appreciation for BBC coverage of tax, public spending, government borrowing and debt, and plenty to applaud. But against a test of broad impartiality, we also had concerns — about gaps and assumptions that put impartiality at risk.

These weaknesses can lead to output that appears to favour particular political positions, but curiously these lean left and right. That makes a charge of systematic political bias in this area hard to sustain. So while the risks to impartiality may look political, we think they need a better explanation, which is that they’re really journalistic. This is no less serious and raises questions for the BBC and its journalists about what kind of journalism they want to do and how to do it. Inevitably, we focus on what could change. Much could apply at least equally to other UK media.

We think the emphasis on broad impartiality in the BBC’s response to the Serota Review timely and necessary. We found that significant interests and perspectives on tax, public spending, government borrowing and debt could be better served by BBC output and were not protected by a simpler model of political impartiality. We would not call this bias. But we don’t see how BBC coverage can be described as always fair to different interests if it’s unbalanced in this broad sense. This is an exacting and exciting ideal that drives much that follows.

The 50-page review was written by Michael Blastland and Sir Andrew Dilnot — a journalist and economist (respectively) who have collaborated on a BBC series and a book on the subject of statistics in the news. They examined coverage across platforms from October 2021 to March 2022, reviewing 11,000 pieces of BBC content (focusing on about 1,000 of them), and interviewing over 100 people inside and outside the corporation. (It’s also a much clearer, more enjoyable read than most 50-page reports I’ve come across over the years.)

They say the BBC is doing a good job on the subject overall. (Most people they interviewed “thought the output good (we agree). There was huge appreciation for its quality, seriousness, and especially the strengths of specialists.”) So what were the sources of the imbalance and journalistic weaknesses they found?

Reporters don’t know enough about economics.

We think too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence reporting it. This brings a high risk to impartiality. In the period of this review, it particularly affected debt. Some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realize this can be contested and contestable.

Reporting on debt is a major focus of the report — understandably, since narratives around debt power narratives around public spending and taxation. (Maybe you saw this David Wallace-Wells piece the other day about the effects of a decade-plus of austerity policy: “By the end of next year, the average British family will be less well off than the average Slovenian one, according to a recent analysis by John Burn-Murdoch at The Financial Times; by the end of this decade, the average British family will have a lower standard of living than the average Polish one.”)

Blastland and Dilnot highlight the way the BBC used misleading charts that make debt levels look more catastrophic than they actually are. Their scale gets knee-jerk described as “eye-watering” or at “record levels” (often without adjusting for inflation, GDP, or the fact that certain “records” don’t go back very far). A BBC journalist might feel comfortable saying the government “needs to find billions of pounds of savings to keep the U.K.’s debt under control” — which is certainly one view, but not the only one.

We think the root of this is not bias but insufficient awareness of the choices and debates here. Bluntly, debt is controversial. In the period we studied, too many BBC journalists appear not to have known how.

Journalists need to know what’s contestable and why (specialists generally do), lest they take arguable positions and assume they’re fact or that all right-thinking people agree.

Let’s hammer the point: this does not mean we advocate going the other way and saying debt doesn’t matter, or that a government has carte blanche. Its choices usually entail risks on all sides. We’re saying there’s serious argument, no more. To be impartial, journalists need to understand this. Even if they don’t know the detail, it helps to know where the dragons are. The BBC has expertise in this area and could make more use of it.

A temptation a short while ago might have been to map this to a bias against a recent Conservative government. But usually, the case for more debt or borrowing has come from the left. To assume that this is therefore a bias against left or right is, to us, not the most productive starting point. We think the main issue is lack of impartiality caused by uninformed groupthink and lack of confidence to challenge arguments, often given an extra twist by hype.

Reporters bring unspoken assumptions about what fiscal choices are “good” or “bad.”

Several general assumptions seem to lurk like [“debt is bad”] either unnoticed or uncorrected. Others that outsiders observed in BBC coverage were: “more public spending is good” and “tax cuts are good.” Whilst these views might seem to make intuitive sense, all favour some interests above others.

Above all they hide the trade-offs. You can’t be impartial between competing demands for resources if you don’t ask whether more over here means less over there. These trade-offs can seldom be known or specified completely, but they could be more explicitly acknowledged.

Like others before them, Blastland and Dilnot decry the seemingly unkillable metaphor comparing the nation’s budget to a household’s.

Perhaps alarm about debt is justified because “equal to 100% of income” is nevertheless bad. Then how about 260%? That’s about the position in Japan now. How about 450%? That’s what many of us could borrow from a bank or building society for a house. But if you think 450% is worth it for you, why is 100% for the nation bad? There are plausible answers to that, but are the arguments heard?…

That states don’t tend to retire or die, or pay off their debts entirely, is one way national debt is not like household or personal debt, not like a credit card for example, and why analogies with household debt, or suggestions the government must “pay off” or “pay down” the debt can cause intense debate. Clearly, pithy, accessible metaphors are valuable to journalists and audiences. And “paying off” is a tempting phrase even to those who know the arguments because it seems to express the idea there must be some degree of discipline over debt, even for a state. We just used a household analogy by saying mortgage debt equal to 100% of income would not usually induce fear. But again, it helps to know that household analogies are dangerous territory, intensely contested, and can easily mislead.

One senior BBC journalist told them that, without strong subject-matter knowledge, a reporter is likely to return to “their ‘resting state’ — not a deliberate bias, but a set of presumptions. Never underestimate the BBC’s resting state, she said.”

Those assumptions can make choices seem like mandates.

One on-air statement from a BBC journalist said the UK government “will have to…” We appreciate this was made live and might have been unintended. Still, BBC journalists should exercise extreme caution before suggesting a government “will have to…” raise taxes, cut taxes, cut spending, raise spending, cut debt, raise debt, etc. — in any area. These are choices. They may be choices with reasonable arguments in their favour, so might the alternatives. It should be no surprise if people react badly when the BBC appears to take sides by saying a choice is a “must.” Again, it’s a lack of sensitivity to what’s contestable and why.

That example highlights a general problem. Too often, it’s not clear from a report that fiscal policy decisions are also political choices; they’re not inevitable, it’s just that governments like to present them that way. The language of necessity takes subtle forms; if the BBC adopts it, it can sound perilously close to policy endorsement.

We think, for this and other reasons, that broad interests that lack political salience can be neglected. The taxpaying interests of people on low incomes and whole areas of the UK where incomes tend to be low are a striking example of this neglect. We think it fails the test of broad impartiality.

Economic issues get filtered through a political lens.

Not, again, a lens intended to help one party or another — a lens that takes guidance from politicians on how to talk about economics. Here’s how one person interviewed for the report put it:

“Lots of people think they understand politics; lots of people know they don’t understand economics. And that gives a comfort to, ‘Oh well, George Osborne is saying that because of x, y, z and Rishi Sunak is doing that because of this and this, and he doesn’t get on with Boris Johnson and they don’t like Penny Mordaunt.’ And it’s a far easier narrative when the challenge of actually explaining in an engaging way why money matters and how it works really matters has got to be a unique function of BBC News.”

In other words, reporters often feel more confident — on sounder ground, journalistically — evaluating the politics of an economic issue than, well, the economics of it. Once a government official made an announcement on the issue, one reporter told the reviewers, it “obliged him to serve up a predictable set of reactions,” making it a politics story.

Reporters don’t do enough to explain, and they focus too much on people like them.

We were disturbed by how many people said they didn’t understand the coverage. In our audience research, most had no comment about impartiality on fiscal policy because they didn’t know what the stories meant

Lower socio-economic groups tend to be worst affected, but not only those. Should broad impartiality concern itself with the extent to which different groups find the coverage accessible? We think it should. That leaves the BBC with a creative challenge: how to mix more engaging explanation into its coverage of economics and the political debate around economics.

Less-than-comprehensible coverage has knock-on effects, of course. Lower socio-economic groups are also less likely to have alternate sources of information on fiscal policy, beyond journalism. They’re less likely to have industry or lobbying groups working on their behalf and less likely to have sound ways to communicate their interests even when they can figure out what they are.

If we think the BBC is missing public interests and richness of debate in this area — which we do — a big obstacle to doing more is that a large part of the audience doesn’t get it and doesn’t relate to it. The BBC excels at finding new, engaging ways of covering old subjects once thought dull, niche, or inaccessible, so it shouldn’t be beyond the bounds in this case. But it’s also not as if reporters and programme makers aren’t constantly asking themselves how to do it, so there’s evidently no easy answer. But if ever there was a need…

Another example cited in the report is coverage of two major forms of taxation: the income tax and the value-added tax, or VAT. (Americans, think of it like the sales tax, though an economist would shoot me for saying that.) The income tax is a progressive tax; the poorest one-third of U.K. residents don’t pay it, much like Mitt Romney’s famous “47% percent.” The VAT, as a consumption tax, gets paid by everyone.

That means, in some parts of the U.K., one tax has more impact on residents than the other. In Wales, for instance, residents pay 11% more in VAT than in income tax. But in rich London, they pay more than twice as much in income tax than they do in VAT. So if the BBC spends much more time and focus covering the income tax than VAT — and it does — that naturally favors some interests over others.

You could say this relative neglect of VAT is because not much usually happens to it, but isn’t that itself to accept a political status quo? It also raises the issue of how the BBC informs audiences about relevant background — which you might prefer to call education, not news, which might in turn have implications for where the BBC does it. Education or not, it could easily find its way into an interviewer’s questions…

So it’s again worth asking what frames the coverage, and again politics plays a part. When the U.K. government talks about tax cuts, for example, it does not usually mean VAT, and the media absorbs that framing without sufficient question

While there’s no doubt the political frames need reporting, they easily dominate, and this is a risk to broad impartiality. In general, just because we include what blue, red, yellow, orange and green said this week does not make coverage impartial between the nations’ varied interests.

You can’t discuss these issues without getting at the broader class issues that influence who gets to work in journalism. (People from privileged backgrounds have it far easier in the U.S. — but the U.K. seems to be even worse on that front.)

Another example cited in the report: Many more U.K. residents ride buses each day than do trains and planes. But stories on rail and air transportation get loads more coverage than stories about new bus routes.

“It’s not that it’s wrong to talk about income tax or the fairness or otherwise of freezing thresholds and all of that. Of course it’s not wrong. But it’s about emphasis and overly emphasizing something that is outwardly important to a disproportionate amount of the people who are making this journalism versus it being of less importance to significant quantities of our audiences…In other words, to address both of those examples directly, they are income taxpayers who probably disproportionately get to work on a train.”

The report really is worth a read. For journalists, it’s a useful check on assumptions they may not realize they’ve made, moves they didn’t realize they were making.

Blastland and Dilnot declined to make the de rigueur list of recommendations (“We think our views are clear but it’s for the BBC to decide how to respond given its other objectives”). But they do note the answer to much of what they describe is simply more and better journalism.

“Contrary to some fears, almost nothing here is about stopping people saying things,” they write. “It’s overwhelmingly about saying more, more creatively.”

…you never know what might turn up until you look. That underlies everything here. There are points of view out there, direct interests too, things people might want to know, that are easily missed, and that politics doesn’t always reach. Broad impartiality is nothing if not a commitment to the audience to go out and find them, whatever anyone else is saying.

This is demanding. We looked in only a few corners; there’d probably be more to find in other areas of public spending, local government, pensions and benefits, and so on, but it would take determination. The first step is to accept that broad impartiality brings a stronger obligation to look.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 30, 2023, 2:01 p.m.
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