In political reporting, there's no hotter issue than media bias. Politicians and their supporters regularly make allegations of political bias in news reporting. These are invariably followed by the steadfast denials of offended news workers. Bias contravenes one of the most basic assumptions about the nature of journalism - that journalists should be impartial in reporting news. Objectivity and impartiality were central to how modern journalism defined itself (Schudson 1994) and media institutions still commit themselves to those principles (Box 11.1).
When it comes to legislative requirements for impartiality, newspapers have more discretion than broadcasters because they developed from a very different environment. Limited analogue spectrum meant broadcasters had to be licensed because they were using a public resource and only a limited number could transmit at once. As part of this process, they were required to be impartial. Newspapers developed instead out of a history of ‘yellow’ (partisan) journalism and a tradition of press barons using their outlets to try to influence political debate. They developed from 17th-century battles over press censorship and repressive licensing that saw the notion of a ‘free press’ come to be seen as a cornerstone of democracy.
Advocating for a political position or party is still considered a ‘property right’ of owners. The Australian Press Council says a newspaper ‘has a right to take sides on any issue’ (APC 1977).