The idea of a biased media is nothing new. All news and information is being brought to you through someone else’s perspective. They’re called gatekeepers. It’s an inescapable part of being a media consumer. It’s not always nefarious or underhanded, but it underpins practically everything we read, see and hear. Instead of railing against it, we need to learn to recognize it and be able to process the parts that aren’t biased in order to reach a truly balanced and informed opinion.
The modern concept of the mainstream media was first bantered about sometime in the 1950s when aspects of counterculture became more known to the general public. The term mainstream was not used exclusively to describe the news media; other media can be considered mainstream such as film, television, books and magazines.
Initially media content had to be mainstream, whether news or otherwise; it simply had to be palatable to the widest audience possible in order to be purchased by the most number of people possible. But there was also alternate and underground press to appeal to niche audiences because it turns out that people aren’t as homogenous in our tastes as marketing executives would like us to be. So we began using the term mainstream in order to distinguish between that which was considered conventional at that time and this ‘other’.
The notion of the mainstream news media’s liberal bent started in the 60s and early 70s, and was particularly centered around reporting on the war in Vietnam. It gained momentum among conservatives in the 1980s with the publication of The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers. The book highlighted a 1980 survey of journalists working for major U.S. media outlets and drew conclusions asserting that there was a clear liberal bias in the media. Since then there have been scores of books published about liberal media bias along with an equal number of books refuting it all as bull. I’m not here to argue either side, because it’s pretty much irrelevant at this point. All media is biased, remember?
Keep in mind that up until 1987, radio and television broadcasters operated in accordance with an FCC policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. At its very basic level, the Fairness Doctrine regulated the notion of fair and balanced; it stipulated that broadcasters had to give equal time to opposing points of view concerning any controversial matters of public import. Pretty vague, I know. Which is likely a huge reason why it was abandoned 30 years ago.
Not long after, right wing radio programs that had previously flourished in small, local markets began gaining in popularity and becoming more, if you will, mainstream. Some even began to gain a national audience through syndication. One thing that talk radio did was allow consumers to become more involved in the dialogue, by being able to call in and share their thoughts and opinions. Certainly Rush Limbaugh and the rise of the Dittoheads was a sign of things to come in media.
Through the 1990’s people were mostly still getting their news from print and broadcast/cable sources and for news consumers it was still mostly a one-way street, unless one felt to compelled to call the network or send a letter to the editor to voice their support or displeasure. But the Web was growing exponentially, Usenet had been in use by some and interaction with both news sources and other consumers of news was becoming the norm.
During the Bush administration, Internet news exploded and political opinion was reflected online through blogs and comments, forums and billboards. But by the 2008 election, social media had become the bullhorn through which people amplified their particular anger and praise exponentially. With the click of a share button, sensational headlines from dubious sources are traded in an endless barrage of manufactured outrage without much critical thought concerning the legitimacy of the message.
Today the Internet has brought on an almost unlimited number of resources from which we can choose to get information, no matter where on the compass our politics lay. Those who learn to recognize bias and are able to separate the wheat from the chaff are better informed and better poised to make sound, rational decisions.
Bias is many things. It could be the owner of a news organization wanting to present a pro-labor union stance on any issue even remotely tangential to labor unions. It can be refusal to report negatively on a high-dollar advertiser in a newspaper. Or it can be something as simple as certain modifiers used to describe any given person.
Here are a few well-known types of bias that permeate the news:
- Bias of Omission – leaving out key aspects of a story that may change the overall conclusion the audience could reach
- Bias by story selection/placement – this is simply choosing to ignore one story in place of running with another; putting one on the front page and the other buried on page 12
- Commercial Bias – what is going to “sell” and be really popular, this is increasingly dangerous as decision makers are looking to market/consumer behavior analysis to decide what to report on.
- Access Bias – not reporting adversely on something out of fear of losing access to that person or entity.
- Visual Bias – a picture is worth 1000 words. Never was this truer and this bias is prolific in our highly visual Internet environment
- Bias by source/expert selection – when citing sources or experts, they all magically conform to one consensus
- Fairness Bias – feeling obligated to provide balance in areas where none is appropriate
As for why bias exists, there are probably as many reasons for it as there are types of bias itself. Sometimes the source is intentionally trying to mislead you. Sometimes an innate feeling of the writer slips into their reporting, which is a perfectly normal, natural thing to happen. I like to think that when you brush away any source that has a deliberate overall agenda, most bias is due to the simple fact that we are all human; both providers of information and consumers of information.
The biggest problem with tossing around accusations of bias is the avoidance of this fact that everything is filtered in some way. They say, ”Bias is in the eye of the beholder” because unless something conforms 100% to an individual’s own opinions, that source can be construed as biased itself.
It is extremely difficult to find any report that cannot be accused of one form of bias or another. So it’s irrational to discount any source of news and information by that label alone. And yet many do it every day. “The New York Times is biased, you can’t believe anything they say.” Or “Ugh, Fox News is just a GOP mouthpiece. All they do is lie.”
The first problem with both of these statements is the notion of reducing these behemoth organizations down to a solitary entity. In terms of any potential biases, you are contending with the thousands of different people within the organization who likely fall all over the political compass: managers, editors, reporters, and producers.
Sure, every news organization has a general tone and that tone is dictated largely by ownership, top level executives, and also the precarious and symbiotic relationship of advertisers and audience; the latter being the reason for the organization’s existence remember. Both of these news organizations are capable of producing obviously slanted tripe and yet both are also capable of producing profoundly good pieces of investigative journalism.
In recent years, people fed up with ‘the biased media’ have increasingly turned their backs on once-reputable news organizations and instead flock to ‘alternative’ news sources that are even less objective than any major news outlet. It’s a source of bewilderment for me that a person who, confronted with the notion of a news source’s particular slant, will turn tail and seek information from someplace that is even more biased. Exclusively looking to sources that tell you what you want to hear is not only irresponsible and lazy, but actually dangerous to democracy. Look no further than this election cycle for near constant evidence of this.
Things are not looking good for our republic. An informed citizenry is integral to a properly-functioning democracy. Of the many things that we do not teach our young people during their 13 years of compulsory education, media literacy ranks at #1 in importance. Telling them “everything on the Internet is not true” isn’t very helpful. Young need proper tools in order to consume information and news properly. Actually old people need them too, and so does everyone really.
- Tools for Media Literacy
- Think Before You Share, or Even Form an Opinion For That Matter
- A Case for Wikipedia