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