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What if Journalists Were Actually Like the Rest of us: Overworked, Underpaid, and Sometimes Just a bit Rubbish?

I might shock a lot of people with what I’m about to say here – probably not anyone who’s heard me talk about the so-called “mainstream” media before – but still:

I don’t believe that the Scottish media’s problem is, or ever has been bias. There, I said it.

Sure, there have been some moments which can only really be described as cold, calculated political propaganda (Nick Robinson’s somewhat brazen use of the edit suite last September, and “the vow” spring to mind) but these incidents are in fact notable because they were quite exceptional. I can hear the cries of “MSM shill!” already, how could I possibly be defending the Scottish press against accusations of bias? Have I lost my mind entirely? Well no, because it’s not really as simple as all that.

I don’t (and actually never have) believed that bias is the major problem with the Scottish media, it’s certainly a concern, but nowhere near the extent to which people think it is. I don’t subscribe to the views of people like GA Ponsonby (for those who don’t know, he’s basically to the Scottish media, what David Icke is to our shape-shifting Lizard overlords). Don’t get me wrong, Ponsonby has some reasonable arguments, but like Icke, there’s a fantastical element to it all which costs the sensible stuff a lot of credibility. Anyway, I digress…

No, bias is not the central problem in the Scottish media, a lack of resources is. When you imagine The Scotsman’s newsroom for example, you probably think of a bustling scene akin to that of the Daily Planet. Once upon a time perhaps, but these days it’s probably more reminiscent of a school newspaper. That goes for all of Scotland’s papers, they are understaffed, overworked, underfunded and stuck in terminal decline.

A typical day in The Scotsman’s newsroom? Unlikely.

An understanding of how journalism works in 21st century Scotland is what’s lacking from too much of the criticism, these cries of bias are all very well, but they fall far short of the nub of the matter. Of course there is bias amongst journalists and editors, but that’s only natural. Bias is a side effect of being human, it is not necessarily symptomatic of a conspiracy to deceive the general public.

The reality is this: when you are restricted in terms of time and resources, you are forced to take shortcuts, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. It probably means you want to keep your job, or maybe you’re just making the best out of a bad situation. There are two shortcuts in particular which have become more and more common, and are actually the real root of what people tend to mistake for bias, these being: regurgitating press releases and the so-called “balance fallacy”. Every journalist, however well intentioned, has fallen foul of these all too tempting shortcuts at some point or other.

Regurgitating press releases is common because it’s so easy to do. A press release is delivered to the newsdesk ready written, so all you need to do is tweak the wording a bit, and perhaps source a quote to go alongside it (if you’ve got the time). All too often though, a press release makes it to the finished edition without any changes at all – a straight cut and paste job!

So why would that look like bias, as opposed to laziness? Well, a press release doesn’t make it to print simply because someone sent it in, it still needs to appear newsworthy (or not, depending on how slow a news day it is). Basically, whoever has the best press team will get the most column inches over time, it’s as simple as that. Journalists aren’t waking up each morning thinking “how best can I serve the party I support?”, they’re thinking “Christ I hope someone’s put something out that I can turn into a story without too much work”. This naturally means that the political party with the best press team (ie the one with the most money) are writing, and setting the agenda of most of our news. Now, which party in Scotland has the most money again? I’ll just quietly move on to my next point…

The so-called “balance fallacy” is a bit different, because we’re all complicit in this. It’s deceptive, because on the surface it appears a pretty good principle: always present two sides for every story. The problem is that most stories don’t have two sides, at best they have an accurate and inaccurate interpretation of the facts – it ought to be the journalist’s job to uncover the truth and report that, but pushed for time it’s often easier (and safer) to present both sides equally. This leads to a situation where the weaker of two arguments is unnaturally elevated to the status of the stronger argument, thus it actually confuses the reader rather than enlightening them (the exact opposite of what journalism is supposed to do).

That desperate need for supposed balance was very evident during the referendum campaign: on the one hand this, on the other hand that. Sounds okay on the surface, but it’s a pretty poor show when journalists are simply shrugging their shoulders and saying “who knows what’s accurate, you decide”.

They’re not doing it out of malice, and it certainly isn’t bias; perhaps a more accurate interpretation might be: “I don’t have the time to work out what’s accurate, so I’ve gathered together what’s available as best I can so you can decide, sorry”.

A lot of this was actually covered in ‘The Fear Factor’ (2013), I know I would say this, but it’s always worth another watch:

Yes, the glory days of the Scottish press may truly be behind us.

So who’s to blame for it all? Well, that’s the million dollar question, and nobody really knows the answer. Perhaps the most realistic one, is simply that progress is to blame. Old fashioned print journalism still hasn’t got to grips with the digital age, and we as consumers don’t seem in any particular hurry to save it from the death throes.

Ironically, given the general anger in Scotland towards perceived bias in the media, there has not been an outpouring of support for neutral news outlets. By far the most biased newspaper in Scotland now is The National, and I don’t hear its readership complaining too loudly. Perhaps what people really want, is a newspaper that speaks to their own bias, and if that’s the case – fine – but then what’s wrong with those that don’t?

As for broadcast, well, we’d do well to just accept that there isn’t really a broadcast media in Scotland. Despite the impressive looking buildings on Pacific Quay, STV News and BBC Scotland are mainly designed for reporting murders and traffic accidents (in fairness, BBC Scotland throw in the added bonus of Mountain Goats and River City). To expect our regional broadcasters to be anything more than that is to misunderstand their purpose. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jackie Bird is not an instrument of a malicious state conspiracy – she’s a woman in a room, reading.

The main reason that we need to get over this idea of bias being the root of everything that’s wrong with the Scottish media, is that it’s driving a wedge between journalists and their readers. Undoubtedly, the media of the future is one where journalists are far more immediately accountable to their readers. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or direct financial support for online blogs and suchlike, there has to be a basic level of mutual respect, indeed trust, between journalists and their readers.

So the next time you’re reading an article somewhere, and you feel your bias-sense tingling, think about how few people actually comprise a Scottish newsroom in 2015 and ask yourself: do they really have the manpower or the time to conduct a conspiracy? Are they really pure evil, bias incarnate, or are they actually – like the rest of us – maybe just a bit rubbish?

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