Friday, 25 November 2011

broadcast news

In the late 1970s, I attended an interview for a post with the BBC’s Far East and Latin American Service, during which I raised the question of bias in broadcast news reporting.

“Surely you don’t think that BBC News is biased?” I was asked.

This is a paraphrase of my reply: “The BBC World Service provides a nine-minute news bulletin every hour. If we exclude the time allocated to opening and closing headlines, that leaves less than eight minutes to tell listeners what is happening in the world. Someone is therefore deciding which news items to leave out. This may not be conscious bias, but that someone is making a value judgement about what is and isn’t important, a judgement that listeners may not agree with if they had access to all the information that the news editor has available.”

I didn’t get the job. However, I was reminded of this episode while watching the TV news yesterday morning, specifically how two different news organizations tackled the same story, the unrest in Cairo. At 7am, BBC News America led with the corporation’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen’s extended report. Then, at 7.30am, NBC’s Nightly News included an equally detailed dispatch by its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel.

The two reports were broadly similar, but there was one critical difference: what the two reporters had to say about the empty tear gas canisters that they were shown by demonstrators. Bowen reported that the demonstrators were pointing out that the canisters bore the legend ‘made in USA’, while Engel merely said that he was shown the canisters as evidence of the brutality of the police repression. So why the difference?

There are plenty of people who will immediately cite Bowen’s report as evidence of the BBC’s anti-American bias, even though it is unlikely to be untrue. After all, America sells huge quantities of weaponry to Egypt’s military, and it is a stretch of the audience’s credulity to suggest that this doesn’t include tear gas. The more intriguing question is why Engel didn’t mention it.

Any answer would necessarily be speculative, although it is easy to imagine any number of possible reasons. However, speculation is best left to speculators, and the only firm conclusion that I can draw is that anyone who wants to know what is really going on in the world would be well advised to consult as many sources as possible, both those that reinforce their prejudices and those that challenge them, whether it is a simple determination of fact or whether what is presented as fact is actually a value judgement.


  1. Dennis - great entry. As you suggest, the best advice is to consult multiple sources.

    When I was covering the BP oil spill last year it was pretty interesting to see just how different the coverage was. Some of the media seemed pretty content to just republish the press releases they received with no fact checking at all. The readers and viewers never really know if what they're seeing in the news is what investigative reporters really discovered or if it's simply what they read off a press release.

    It would be pretty nice if all the media outlets would present all the facts and let the public decide, but like you say...when there is a time slot to be filled, someone is deciding which facts are most relevant. Tough call.

  2. I am sure you have seen this.
    But, in case you have not here it is.
    Pilger rips them a new one.

  3. No, I hadn’t see that Pilger film RZ, so thanks for providing the link. I thought that it was extremely thought-provoking. Objectivity disappeared from mainstream news reporting decades ago.

  4. Well, as you rightly say, it is no surprise at all that the Egyptian military's tear gas, and all their other equipment, too, was made in the USA.

    Indeed, it's not news at all. Maybe that's why Engel didn't mention it.

    The more intriguing question is, why did Bowen mention it?

  5. As I pointed out, both reporters were shown the empty canisters: Bowen reported on the anger felt by ordinary Egyptians against America because US-made riot-control products were being used against them; I believe that Engel didn't mention it because he would be aware that the majority of his viewers would not like to hear anti-American sentiments being expressed by people they thought were on their side.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions if you choose to challenge them. Anonymous comments will not be accepted.