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Opinion varies on how far newspapers and television affect voting behaviour. Many people don’t believe they are affected by advertising. They may also claim they can tell what is true and what is not regardless of the paper they read. This claim deserves examination, but so does the cliché that newspapers tell lies. Some may do, but that is not the main problem. Or, at least, not the only one.  

Donald Trump tells lies but if you try to say that to his more dedicated followers they won’t listen. Not because they think he necessarily told the strict truth on every occasion, but because they don’t care. His general attitude expresses a belief they have that he is listening to them and nobody else is, so his general attitude is ‘true’ and anything he does to get power is justified.  We need to distinguish between individual small facts and a general narrative, a way of telling stories that shapes perception and reflect emotional states.

Journalists tell new stories. What counts as news and how a story will be told are decided by the style of their paper, which reflects a world familiar to their readers. What they choose to talk about and how they choose to present their story depends on what their readers are used to, what they are interested in, what they expect and what they will accept. You could call that reflecting and reinforcing bias, but that is too simple. It is providing information of a certain sort for a certain purpose, selling papers so you can sell advertising space. 

Advertisers need to know what sort of audience they are buying so newspapers need to keep a certain kind of audience ready to be packaged and sold to them. Some have party political loyalties, but they are a business, not a political party. Their selection and presentation will obviously reinforce a set of values, assumptions and prejudices, but that is usually only considered a problem with other people’s newspapers, not the ones ‘we’ read. It is not the job of a newspaper to be neutral or objective but to tell the story as their readers wish to hear it.

That is not to say all journalists fail to tell the truth as they see it. In broadsheet papers and on the BBC, for example, we might expect a level of enquiry and presentation that is rigorous and honest. That does not mean they are immune from following a house style and a general narrative tendency.  If the story of the day is that an Arab Spring is bringing democracy to the Middle East some may be tempted to look for and/or present stories that support that line. Until they discover it is not going to happen that way. If the story is that Jeremy Corbyn is a weak leader who will never win an election, that is the assumption they are likely to accept. Until he starts getting more votes.  The ‘truth’ will out eventually from some sources, but there may be a time delay while the accepted narrative changes.

We also have to allow for the technologies of news outlets.  A story featuring on radio may not appear on t.v. at all because they don’t have any pictures. That is not bias, just doing what they are best at.  A Free Press is able to investigate and hold powerful people to account, but it is free to say what it likes within the law.

In 2017 a story was widely reported that a young girl from a Christian family was given to foster parents who were Muslim. They took away her crucifix, refused her bacon, spoke Arabic at home, hid their face with a niqab and told her she was wicked. It started in The Times and quickly spread to other respectable outlets. Not a single element of the story was actually true, but it served to fuel anti-Muslim feeling. Some newspapers did not intend that effect and were embarrassed by their mistake.