Partisanship in the media is by no means an American phenomenon, and it has many different manifestations abroad, a panel of four experts discussed Friday at the 2011 UW-Madison journalism ethics conference. The speakers talked about aspects of partisanship and ethics in Canada, Africa, India, and Colombia.
Ira Basen of CBC radio discussed the impending arrival of SunTV News — what some are calling “Fox News North” — into Canada. The mainstream Canadian response has so far not been welcoming, viewing Fox News as emblematic of all that is wrong in the raucous, disparaging, and polarized media landscape in the US. Some say this type of news will violate the Broadcast Act, which prohibits the dispersal of false or misleading news. However, despite the strong sentiment and partisan fears that Fox News North has provoked, Basen noted most Canadians have only seen the program via John Stewart’s less-than-flattering clips on The Daily Show. Questions the Canadians have: will Fox News North usher in a new era of partisan media à la US? Is this a bad thing?
Jo Ellen Fair, UW-Madison SJMC professor, next courageously tackled the notion of partisanship in all 54 African states. The American media embrace the ideals of liberal democracy: differences are encouraged as long as they don’t interfere, participation is encouraged, non-partisanship is expected. This is what has been exported by the US government and NGOs, and Africans pretend to go along with it. However, African journalists are balancing many (often clashing) family, ethnic, cultural, and other group loyalties and identities—different from the American idea of partisanship as a simple loyalty to either the right or left. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about partisanship in the US, Fair posited. Perhaps American journalists too are coming up with strategies for balancing their multiple loyalties and identities, and what we’re seeing is simply the “Africanization” of the US press.
Shakuntala Rao, professor at State University of New York and SUNY-Plattsburgh, discussed the ethical quandaries India’s booming broadcast network is provoking. In the past few years, India has seen a massive deregulation and privatization of broadcast media, which has led to an explosion of 120 new TV stations broadcasting in over 20 languages. But Rao wonders: are they producing quality journalism? Not yet, it seems. There has been a “Foxification” and “Starification” of most content, including a heavy reliance on the three C’s—cricket, cinema, and crime—to retain viewers. Stations have fragmented along religious and political lines and are producing news according to affiliation. Public service journalism is lacking in this brand new field, and the code of ethics is still being written. Indians want ethics codes that are both effective and truly Indian in their nature—how can this be achieved in this climate?
Finally, Hernando Rojas, Associate Professor at UW-Madison SJMC talked about the Columbian flavor of partisanship. In the past, the media used to be openly aligned with the government in office, which rotated every 20 years in a power-sharing agreement. Today, this system has changed and media has never been less partisan and more professional—but you’d never know if you asked viewers. People perceive the media to be much more biased today than in the past. But why? When discussing partisanship in media, we sometimes forget the partisanship of our audience. According to the theory of the Hostile Media Effect, people (especially the most partisan) interpret even the most balanced of media texts as being against them, regardless of political affiliation. So are we dealing with biased news or a biased audience? (Or both?) What is the best response—should journalists follow a fickle audience?
Examining the ethical quandaries other countries are grappling with can help illuminate our own here in the US. We by no means have a monopoly on partisanship and petty politics, and exchanging strategies for dealing with these issues can make us all better journalists.