Bias in the me­dia – good, bad or “who cares?”

The Insider - - FRONT PAGE -

Emmy award­ing-win­ning writer and “60 Min­utes” TV per­son­al­ity, Andy Rooney, al­ways had a great way of say­ing a lot with very few words. So when I de­cided to write this ar­ti­cle about bias in me­dia, I thought about him and what he might say, given that he liked noth­ing bet­ter than to share his per­sonal view­points/opin­ions/ bi­ases on CBS for over 30 years.

In search­ing out some of his “tru­isms” I ran across this one, “Peo­ple will gen­er­ally ac­cept facts as truth only if the facts agree with what they al­ready be­lieve.” But he also said, “To ig­nore the facts does not change the facts.”

Per­haps it’s the lawyer in me that makes me as­sume that any­one with a brain wants to know the facts so they can make in­formed de­ci­sions on what to do about them. But does that mean there is no room in me­dia for bias as well?

When I dis­cussed this ques­tion with a col­league of mine, she asked, “How can me­dia be both a watch­dog and be bi­ased? If it’s sup­posed to be about keep­ing gov­ern­ments ac­count­able, shouldn’t me­dia be ob­jec­tive, present both sides and let the read­ers de­cide?”

Ap­par­ently her thoughts are shared by quite a few oth­ers. Ac­cord­ing to PEW Re­search, in the midst of one of the most bizarre elec­tions in the his­tory of Amer­ica, most U.S. adults said they wanted the news me­dia to present “just the facts” with­out in­ter­pre­ta­tion. But what is re­ally in­ter­est­ing, or maybe even scary, is that 81% of reg­is­tered vot­ers couldn’t agree on what the ba­sic facts ac­tu­ally were.

This is­sue re­minds me of how a lot of the two-pa­per cities used to present op­pos­ing per­spec­tives on the news. Lon­don is a per­fect ex­am­ple. You’d have The Times on one side, The Daily Tele­graph on the other and, of course, there is also The Guardian. So, yes bias has been part of me­dia prob­a­bly since the first news­pa­pers rolled off the print­ing press. But I ask again, “Is there is any place for par­ti­san re­port­ing in journalism?”

To tackle this co­nun­drum, I did a lit­tle dig­ging and dis­cov­ered that in 1949, the United States Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) leg­is­lated a pol­icy called “The Fair­ness Doc­trine” – a reg­u­la­tion that re­quired ra­dio and TV sta­tions to de­vote ad­e­quate time to re­port­ing on im­por­tant pub­lic is­sues. It also man­dated that the cov­er­age ac­cu­rately re­flect op­pos­ing views around the top­ics with­out, as au­thor of Reg­u­lat­ing Broad­cast Pro­gram­ming stated, “…in­doc­tri­nat­ing or ma­nip­u­lat­ing vot­ers’ val­ues by an en­trenched, un­con­trol­lable oli­gop­oly mo­ti­vated solely by a de­sire to max­i­mize its own prof­its.”

What was in­ter­est­ing is that the pol­icy did not ap­ply to print me­dia, cre­at­ing a dou­ble stan­dard on how news was to be re­ported across dif­fer­ent medi­ums. This led to a widely-held be­lief that main­stream me­dia leaned lib­eral.

But in 1987, Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan pres­sured the FCC into abol­ish­ing the fair­ness doc­trine, open­ing the gates for the likes of lo­cal ra­dio broad­caster and staunch con­ser­va­tive, Rush Lim­baugh, to launch his con­ser­va­tively-dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary ra­dio show.

A decade or so later, Fox Tele­vi­sion en­tered the pic­ture in an at­tempt to bal­ance the lib­er­al­con­ser­va­tive equa­tion on ca­ble TV. At that time, the chan­nel pre­sented anal­y­sis of news that was skewed to the right, but not right off the wall.

But as the in­ter­net grew in reach and pop­u­lar­ity and peo­ple were

“Peo­ple will gen­er­ally ac­cept facts as truth only if the facts agree with what they al­ready be­lieve. To ig­nore the facts does not change the facts.” Andy Rooney

ex­posed to me­dia they pre­vi­ously had lit­tle chance of ac­cess­ing, the bias in journalism grew along with it and in the early 2000s Fox slipped sig­nif­i­cantly fur­ther right, spark­ing stud­ies by econ­o­mists about the “Fox News Ef­fect.”

Fast for­ward to 2016 and Fox News is the most pop­u­lar 24-hour ca­ble news net­work in the US. Why? Be­cause it pro­vides an echo cham­ber that feeds the needs of those in the rightwing who don’t nec­es­sar­ily fancy the facts, pre­fer­ring in­stead to seek val­i­da­tion of their com­mon be­liefs and prin­ci­ples.

But as much as po­lit­i­cal bias has cre­ated com­mu­ni­ties of like-minded peo­ple, it has also had a neg­a­tive ef­fect in terms of trust in me­dia be­cause not all news con­sumers are pro-po­lar­iza­tion.

Ac­tu­ally, truth be known, I love watch­ing highly-bi­ased news chan­nels like Fox and their di­a­met­ri­cally-op­posed ri­val, MSNBC, be­cause I want to see and ex­pe­ri­ence the world through a par­ti­san lens. It’s like re­search­ing a po­si­tion pa­per where you have to ac­knowl­edge both sides of a de­bate be­fore de­fend­ing ei­ther one. It’s like pre­par­ing a le­gal case and go­ing through a process of dis­cov­ery. You need to know what the pros­e­cu­tion has and see the case through their eyes.

Me­dia en­dorse­ments – bias by an­other name?

It’s hard to talk about bias in me­dia with­out delv­ing deep into the U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and see­ing the role main­stream me­dia played in it, the sto­ries that were bro­ken by tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers (not dig­i­tal na­tive me­dia) and the re­liance on en­dorse­ments from the free press.

Many peo­ple still won­der why main­stream me­dia en­dorses can­di­dates – a prac­tice that started well over 200 years go in the US.

And while we’ve all heard that news­pa­pers con­sider it their civic duty to in­form vot­ers and fos­ter dis­cus­sion around im­por­tant pol­icy is­sues, many still aren’t buy­ing it.

But it’s hard to ar­gue that the break­downs and 180⁰ shifts of al­liances have been fas­ci­nat­ing to watch this elec­tion. One of my fa­vorites was when The Ari­zona Repub­lic, who for the first time in its his­tory, en­dorsed a Demo­cratic Party can­di­date. The me­dia cam­paign around that

sanc­tion was ex­e­cuted bril­liantly, cre­at­ing lots of hype and in­ter­est in the pub­li­ca­tion far beyond state bor­ders. I ac­tu­ally down­loaded the dig­i­tal edi­tion my­self for the first time ever, be­cause I wanted to see how the an­nounce­ment was po­si­tioned in the pa­per.

Even the Switzer­land of US Me­dia, USA To­day, wa­vered from its 34-yearold en­dorse­ment ban and back­hand­edly en­dorsed Clin­ton with a “Don’t vote for Trump” ed­i­to­rial.

So what do jour­nal­ists think about bias?

In June 2016, New York Mag­a­zine sur­veyed over 100 print, tele­vi­sion, and dig­i­tal me­dia jour­nal­ists, ask­ing some tough ques­tions about their in­dus­try in terms of trust, bias and au­di­ences.

In­ter­est­ingly, al­though bias in me­dia was rec­og­nized as a prob­lem by some, it didn’t carry the weight one might as­sume.

That seemed rather odd to me given that the num­ber one rea­son jour­nal­ists say peo­ple dis­trust the me­dia is specif­i­cally be­cause it is per­ceived to be po­lar­ized.

But then again, per­haps it shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing when one looks at what one

can­did jour­nal­ist shared, “The me­dia in­creas­ingly, openly loathe and re­sent their au­di­ence and the peo­ple.” And that a high ma­jor­ity of re­porters be­lieve me­dia’s job is to, “Tell read­ers what they ought to, or need to, know, re­gard­less of their in­ter­est in the sub­ject.”

So on the one hand, some me­dia “loathe and re­sent” their read­er­ship, but on the other, they have taken on a higher mis­sion of ed­u­cat­ing them, as­sum­ing that ev­ery­one is on the same level so that once they’d been taught what they need to know, they be­come en­light­ened.

Then there are those that choose to fo­cus only on the al­ready ed­u­cated, el­e­vat­ing them­selves to the elit­ist class. But elit­ist journalism that pro­motes it­self as the foun­da­tion of a demo­cratic so­ci­ety has no cred­i­bil­ity or vi­a­bil­ity be­cause it is not rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

This dis­dain for read­ers is seen again and again as pub­lish­ers shut down com­ment­ing on their web­sites. In the past, let­ters to the ed­i­tor of­fered au­di­ences an abil­ity to dis­agree with a po­si­tion. But what was lack­ing in that de­bate was the op­por­tu­nity to en­gage fur­ther.

And al­though to­day the dig­i­tal space al­lows that di­a­logue to con­tinue, most pub­lish­ers still choose not to en­gage. As far as they are con­cerned they have ful­filled their mis­sion to ac­knowl­edge an op­pos­ing view­point post-fact, so the case is closed.

This whole is­sue re­minds me of Mar­garet Sul­li­van’s ar­ti­cle in The Wash­ing­ton Post where she calls out jour­nal­ists for be­ing out of touch with read­ers dur­ing the U.S.

elec­tion cam­paign, “To put it bluntly, the me­dia missed the story. In the end, a huge num­ber of Amer­i­can vot­ers wanted some­thing dif­fer­ent. And al­though these vot­ers shouted and screamed it, most jour­nal­ists just weren’t lis­ten­ing.”

This hear-no-evil men­tal­ity has led many jour­nal­ists to be­lieve that au­di­ences are shrink­ing. But as Earl Wilkin­son of the In­ter­na­tional News Me­dia As­so­ci­a­tion (INMA) pointed out, the re­cent U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign demon­strated that pas­sion­ate au­di­ences are ac­tu­ally on the rise and that, “Maybe the new badge of honor is not the big­gest cir­cu­la­tion or the most traf­fic, but the most pas­sion and the most en­gage­ment.”

We’ve seen this al­ready hap­pen­ing in mag­a­zines which are, by de­sign, fo­cused on read­ers’ in­ter­ests and pas­sions. But can a daily news­pa­per tran­si­tion to this model? A few are of­fer­ing mag­a­zine-like sec­tions within their pub­li­ca­tions and some are spin­ning off in­ter­est-fo­cused web­sites, but the ma­jor­ity still hold on to tra­di­tions – tra­di­tions that are keep­ing them from in­no­vat­ing in to­day’s dig­i­tal re­al­ity.

Bot­tom Line

Okay, so if news­pa­pers have the duty to the cit­i­zenry to be the watch­dog of gov- ern­ments and big busi­ness and to in­form the pub­lic about news that mat­ters, can bias en­ter the equa­tion and still en­able me­dia to ful­fill its fourth es­tate obli­ga­tion?

My an­swer is, “Yes,” but it comes with a se­ri­ous caveat. 18th cen­tury English painter, teacher and writer, Ben­jamin Hay­don said it best, “For se­ri­ous minds, a bias rec­og­nized is a bias ster­il­ized.”

Just like na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, ed­i­tors must sep­a­rate church and state and clearly iden­tify what con­tent is bi­ased/opin­ion ver­sus “just the facts, ma’am”. If ed­i­tors do that, then I think a dis­cern­ing au­di­ence would want qual­ity anal­y­sis of the facts to help to po­si­tion them within the per­spec­tives of their lives and val­ues.

Be­cause al­though facts are ex­tremely im­por­tant, the fact is they are a com­mod­ity that will, in the not so dis­tant fu­ture, be re­ported by ro­botic re­porters. When that hap­pens it will be the in­tel­li­gent com­men­tary by smart and savvy colum­nists and ed­i­tors that will dif­fer­en­ti­ate me­dia com­pa­nies.

So the bot­tom line, in my in­her­ently bi­ased opin­ion is that…

“Bias in me­dia is good when it ed­u­cates, bad when it seg­re­gates and ir­rel­e­vant when it re­it­er­ates.”

“The me­dia in­creas­ingly, openly loathe and re­sent their au­di­ence and the peo­ple.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.