Beyond ‘impartiality’: how the ABC can benefit from editorial audits

The ABC will be richly rewarded for its decision to monitor its coverage if the analysis is robust, empirical and multidimensional. AAP/Stefan Postles

The decision of the ABC to conduct regular editorial audits of its coverage of controversial topics is a great idea.

The ABC has a unique place in the Australian media landscape. Learning more about how it covers the big topics is important for both the organisation and the Australian public it serves.

How can the ABC get the most out of this process?

If we only had the bias equivalent of a geiger counter to run over a wad of ABC online news reports, or 7.30 segments. Oh, for something with a gauge and needle to show how much bias had been detected: something that beeped louder and more insistently as the bias levels went up.

But we don’t and never will have a bias meter. “Impartiality” and “objectivity” – the gold standards of public broadcasting – are not backed up by bullion in the central bank.

Try to define “impartiality” and you’ll find yourself chasing your tail. In the aftermath of the Alston affair, the broadcaster tried to get a grip on the concept. The ABC found that, despite a vast literature:

…surprisingly little tells you of what, precisely, impartiality consists.

The ABC did its best to domesticate the idea, trading “impartiality” for terms such as “balance”, “fairness”, “lack of prejudgement” – all equally fuzzy concepts. For a definition with a ring of a potion class with Harry Potter’s Snape, read the BBC Trust’s 80-page report on the concept.

For methodology, the ABC used content analysis. Though widely applied in mass communication research, content analysis doesn’t tell you what to count. It gives no guidance on how to determine whether, for instance, the ABC favoured Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd in the election debates, or where to start in evaluating the coverage of asylum seekers.

This means there is a tendency in content analysis to count what is easily counted - for example, numbers of words, articles, or seconds for a particular topic or speaker.

These things can be worth counting. In my research, based on the first two weeks of ABC TV news reports of the 2003 Iraq invasion, not one news item was solely devoted to covering Iraqi civilian deaths. There were four on the killing of a cameraman working for the ABC. Simple numbers can be telling.

But how do you determine whether the ABC presents diverse opinions on a hot topic? Count the number of times a speaker turns up in a corpus of news items? This was the method the ABC previously used.

But what is the relative value of, say, appearing once for a lengthy interview, versus appearing briefly but frequently? Is it relevant to consider whether the speaker gets presented in his or her own words, or is paraphrased by the journalist? Over what span of news items is it reasonable to expect balance? Do all views deserve equal time?

None of these questions has a simple answer. But the issues are important, and the ABC must grapple with them to know the diversity and distribution of external voices in its news.

In my research, I wanted to know whose voices were heard when the ABC reported the Iraq invasion. Using the grammatical unit of clause, my researcher and I painstakingly reviewed the TV news items from the ABC correspondents in Washington and Qatar, as well as the journalist embedded with US troops. We calculated the proportion of each news item attributed to a source, coding the provenance of the sources, and noting if the source was unspecified.

The graph below shows the overwhelming dominance of official Coalition spokespeople in this coverage.

Harder still is the problem of how ideologies are invisibly reproduced in news reporting. When not presenting external voices, what words and phrases do journalists use? Carbon tax or carbon price? Global warming or climate change? Disputed territories or occupied territories? War or aggression? Terrorism or shock and awe? Iraqi soldiers or the enemy? Guerrilla fighters or insurgents?

Now the questions get considerably more complex. The evidence becomes diffuse and deep in our taken-for-granted ways of putting things into words. But the power of news to shape the zeitgeist means the hard questions must be pursued, and not simply by asking more journalists whether they think the ABC’s news is OK.

“Impartiality” is elusive because it’s illusive. Language has no default mode, even when we are construing the ordinary and the everyday. Everywhere in language there are choices to make.

Sometimes words sound “biased” simply because they go against the flow. Sometimes the words used are there because someone, with vested interests, put them together and then left them lying around in the vicinity.

If the ABC’s analysis of its coverage is robust, empirical and multidimensional, and it asks of its data careful and precise questions, the ABC will be richly rewarded for its decision to go down this path. Ideally, it would make the data it collects publicly available, in easily searchable formats, for other researchers to use.

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