By the time this op-ed is published, the election will be over and all of your votes will be cast. Leading up to that vote, however, most people relied on various news sources to keep them informed as the election progressed. In the U.S., the public’s relationship to the media is … interesting. News sources are expected to give the facts and yet there is almost always an assumed skepticism around the biases and/or validity of what is being told. Particularly during a time as polarized as the months leading up to the presidential election, every source must be scrutinized and taken, as they say, with a grain of salt.
Being abroad for this year’s presidential election has been very different than being at home. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the cafeteria for breakfast watching the BBC, which is screened on various televisions every morning and most of every day. But on this day in particular, I realized that I only watched the BBC here. Sure, I would read various articles online from other news sources now and then, but generally my information this year has been coming from the BBC. As someone used to visiting around three different sources before feeling like I had the full story, I had a moment of fear. Surely I was being deceived!
In theory, the BBC is impartial because it is publically funded by something called a television license. In the words of the BBC, “Trust is the foundation of the BBC: We are independent, impartial and honest.” In light of recent reports I have heard about news sources in the U.S., I decided to investigate further.
Television licensing was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1946. As it currently stands, any house that watches or records live television or news on any kind of device, including laptops, must pay an annual television license. As of 2012, this license costs £145.50 for color and £49.00 for black and white (that’s approximately $230 and $78, respectively). To give some perspective, about £3.6 billion ($5.76 billion) in such fees were collected in 2010-11. Because it is technically considered a tax, avoiding the license is a criminal offense. The money from the license is spread among the BBC’s various programs, from television to radio to online. The full breakdown can be found on the BBC’s website.
This public funding allows the BBC to provide impartial reporting. While the BBC may still have biases, the organization has several strict standards in place to remain impartial. The BBC Trust is the body primarily in charge of the license revenue and the public interests of the BBC. The Trust is in place to maintain the BBC’s standards, including strict guidelines in regards to sponsorship, reporting on party politics and providing reviews of the impartiality of specific subject areas; and all of these reports and guidelines are easily viewed online.
Now, jump across the pond to the U.S. where the idea of unbiased reporting is essentially nonexistent. Many people find U.S. media in general to be liberally minded, and then there are more specific accusations against organizations like Fox News for being too right-wing. National Public Radio is often considered one of the most factual sources in the U.S. while other news organizations may only provide partial or false information.
Unlike the BBC, media organizations in the U.S. can use their money to support specific political parties, making Fox’s mantra, “fair and balanced,” a little doubtful and MSNBC’s “lean forward” a little more ambiguous than it should be. In the past two years, both of those organizations have donated thousands of dollars to the political parties they support.
I do not think a tax like the U.K.’s would be effective in the U.S. People like choice and with modern technology, implementing something similar would be complicated. That being said, it is an interesting thing to think about when searching out news sources. Where does your news source get funding from, and what in turn does it put funding toward? Does that affect the way you feel about the impartiality of the reporting? Even the Record has dealt with accusations of bias. As a fully independent paper that is in part funded by the Student Activities Tax, the Record has a responsibility to be impartial, which in itself is an issue that the public has a right to challenge and comment on. Whether at the College or in the country, taking our media sources seriously is an important part of learning the whole truth and making an informed decision.
Megan Bantle ’14 is a English major from Adams, Mass. She currently is studying abroad at Edinburgh University in Scotland.