Irish Media Bias - Yes or No?
The recent referendum on repealing the Eight Amendment (25/5/18) provided an ideal testing ground to probe public perceptions of media bias and in particular, to assess whether or not a ‘ bias’ actually exists in the Irish media.
The notion of the media as some sort of Fourth Estate, fearlessly interrogating all sides without fear or favour, is an attractive idea especially in a functioning participative democracy. However, the accusation by conservatives is that the media, far from facilitating debate, is more likely to end up playing the role of active participant and campaigner in any debate especially one concerning social matters.
But just how close to reality is this in the case of the modern day Irish media? Is the media facilitating debate or simply cheerleading one side in that debate? If the latter is the case, what are the implications for journalism and indeed the future of the media industry?
New-Ireland.com commissioned Amarach Research* to poll the public on these questions. Amarach Research conducted a poll of 1,000 people across a representative demographic sample as the campaigns and media coverage were in progress (May 16th – 21st). Respondents were asked questions aimed at probing their perceptions of a ‘media bias’ and also, the effect of this perception on their habits as media consumers.
In the survey, respondents were asked: ‘With reference to the upcoming referendum on the Eight Amendment, in your opinion, which side of the vote does Irish media coverage broadly favour?’ While 28% replied that the Irish media was neutral on the topic, the largest number – 42% - indicated that the media favoured a Yes vote. 17% said it favoured a No vote and the remaining 13% opted for ‘Don’t know’.
The significance of this perception of a media bias is given added weighting when the role of the media in the campaign is considered. The RTE commissioned B&A exit poll, as well as asking respondents about how they voted, also probed respondents about the factors which influenced them in making their decision. The greatest number (43%) cited ‘personal stories in the media’ as the factor that had influenced them most, 34% gave ‘experience of people they knew’ while just 10% said ‘posters’. Clearly, media coverage, in all of its forms, played a central role in the referendum.
The other part of this New-Ireland.com survey probed the possible effect of perceptions around media bias in determining people’s media consumption habits. In recent times, the media industry has found itself under enormous pressure with declining newspaper readerships and stagnant or falling TV and radio audiences. In the case of newspapers, increases in online readership has failed to compensate for declining advertising revenues making for an uncertain future for all media outlets. The media industry’s view of these challenges appears to be that they are part of a broader technological shift and as such, are beyond their control. But to what extent is the public perception of the media as a biased entity a factor in the ongoing challenges faced by the media industry?
In order to further explore this, respondents were asked: ‘How important are your perceptions around media bias in determining your Irish media consumption habits?’ In response, the largest number (49%) said these perceptions were neither important nor unimportant. However, a significant number (37%) stated that perceptions around media bias were important in determining their Irish media consumption habits while just 14% said they were not important.
Given that 37% of respondents indicated that ‘media bias’ was an important factor in determining their media consumption habits, the question has to be posed – how big a factor is the perception of ‘media bias’ in the declining fortunes of the Irish media industry? In the face of growing competition from rival social media platforms, has the media opted for a more partial form of journalism in its attempts to justify its relevance in the new digital age? If so, will this model of campaigning social journalism rescue the media from what seems like its inexorable decline or will it simply further erode public trust of journalists to do what journalists have always done – interrogate all sides of the story without fear, favour or partiality. It would appear that the jury is still out on this....
*Amárach Research, May Omnibus Survey 2018