Media Bias – Who Do We Believe?

Media bias refers to the bias of journalists and news producers within the mass media in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. The term “media bias” implies a pervasive or widespread bias contravening the standards of journalism, rather than the perspective of an individual journalist or article. The direction and degree of media bias in various countries is widely disputed.

A highly cited academic study showing a liberal media bias in American journalism is The Media Elite,* a 1986 book co-authored by political scientists Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman, and Linda Lichter. They surveyed journalists at national media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and broadcast networks. The survey found that most of these journalists were Democratic voters whose attitudes were considered to be more liberal than those of the general public on a variety of topics, including hot-button social issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights. They then compared journalists’ attitudes to their coverage of controversial issues such as the safety of nuclear power, school busing to promote racial integration, and the energy crisis of the 1970s.

The authors concluded that journalists’ coverage of controversial issues reflected their own attitudes, and the predominance of political liberals in newsrooms therefore pushed news coverage in a liberal direction. They presented this tilt as a mostly unconscious process of like-minded individuals projecting their shared assumptions onto their interpretations of reality.

A widely-cited public opinion study documents a correlation between news source and certain misconceptions about the Iraq war. Conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in October 2003, the poll asked Americans whether they believed statements about the Iraq war that were known to be false. Respondents were also asked which was their primary news source: Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, “Print sources,” or NPR. By cross referencing the responses according to primary news source, the study showed that higher numbers of Fox News watchers held certain misconceptions about the Iraq war. The director of Program on International Policy (PIPA), Stephen Kull said, “While we cannot assert that these misconceptions created the support for going to war with Iraq, it does appear likely that support for the war would be substantially lower if fewer members of the public had these misperceptions.

…”balanced” coverage that plagues American journalism and which leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting…and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

Ken Silverstein, 2008

The Glasgow Media Group carried out the Bad News Studies, a series of detailed analyses of television broadcasts (and later newspaper coverage) in the United Kingdom. (Eldridge, 2000). Published between 1976 and 1985, the Bad News Studies used content analysis, interviews and covert participant observation to conclude that news was biased against trade unions, blaming them for breaking wage negotiating guidelines and causing high inflation.

Given that different groups in society have different beliefs, priors and interests, to which group would the media tailor its bias? David Stromberg constructs a demand-driven model where media bias arises because different audiences have different effects on media profits. Advertisers pay more for affluent audiences and media may tailor content to attract this audience, perhaps producing a right-wing bias. On the other hand, urban audiences are more profitable to newspapers because of lower delivery costs. Newspapers may for this reason tailor their content to attract the profitable predominantly liberal urban audiences. Finally, because of the increasing returns to scale in news production, small groups such as minorities are less profitable. This biases media content against the interest of minorities.

Tools for measuring and evaluating media bias

Richard Alan Nelson’s (2004) study cited above on Tracking Propaganda to the Source: Tools for Analyzing Media Bias reports there are at least 12 methods used to analyze the existence of and quantify bias:

  1. Surveys of the political/cultural attitudes of journalists, particularly members of the media elite, and of journalism students.
  2. Studies of journalists’ previous professional connections.
  3. Collections of quotations in which prominent journalists reveal their beliefs about politics and/or the proper role of their profession.
  4. Computer word-use and topic analysis searches to determine content and labeling.
  5. Studies of policies recommended in news stories.
  6. Comparisons of the agenda of the news and entertainment media with agendas of political candidates or other activists.
  7. Positive/negative coverage analysis.
  8. Reviews of the personal demographics of media decision makers.
  9. A comparison of advertising sources/content which influence information/entertainment content.
  10. Analyses of the extent of government propaganda and public relations (PR) industry impact on media.
  11. Studies of the use of experts and spokespersons etc. by media vs. those not selected to determine the interest groups and ideologies represented vs. those excluded.
  12. Research into payments of journalists by corporations and trade associations to speak before their groups and the impact that may have on coverage.

A technique used to avoid bias is the “point/counterpoint” or “round table“, an adversarial format in which representatives of opposing views comment on an issue. This approach theoretically allows diverse views to appear in the media. However, the person organizing the report still has the responsibility to choose people who really represent the breadth of opinion, to ask them non-prejudicial questions, and to edit or arbitrate their comments fairly. When done carelessly, a point/counterpoint can be as unfair as a simple biased report, by suggesting that the “losing” side lost on its merits.

Using this format can also lead to accusations that the reporter has created a misleading appearance those viewpoints have equal validity (sometimes called “false balance“).

Another technique used to avoid bias is disclosure of affiliations that may be considered a possible conflict of interest. This is especially apparent when a news organization is reporting a story with some relevancy to the news organization itself or to its ownership individuals or conglomerate. Often this disclosure is mandated by the laws or regulations pertaining to stocks and securities. Commentators on news stories involving stocks are often required to disclose any ownership interest in those corporations or in its competitors.

In rare cases, a news organization may dismiss or reassign staff members who appear biased. This approach was used in the Killian documents affair and after Peter Arnett‘s interview with the Iraqi press. This approach is presumed to have been employed in the case of Dan Rather over a story that he ran on 60 Minutes in the month prior to the 2004 election that attempted to impugn the military record of George W. Bush by relying on allegedly fake documents that were provided by Bill Burkett, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Texas Army National Guard.

Finally, media bias will probably always be apparent and unavoidable. The media is driven by powers far beyond our reach, but one thing is for sure, as long as you recognize it,  take it for what it is, check your sources, and question the motives of stations that have a history of making the news instead of reporting it you will be able to use your own judgment, make your own decisions, and turn off the programs that have their own interest in mind instead of the viewers. We live in troubled times and we depend on the media to inform. Now with the increased use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media we get information first hand and unedited. It may not always be unbiased, but at least we have another source to rely on.


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3 Responses to Media Bias – Who Do We Believe?

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  3. Great Article interesting website.

    ~ there is a media bias
    ~ its been years (well over 100) in the creation, making, coming
    ~ there is serious money being spent to keep it this way
    ~ alternative news sources are critical

    I too use to believe there was a liberal bias to the media… I would not call the bias liberal today. My guess is most of the 99% would agree with me that that bias is “conservative” not liberal. Even the article hints at this via this line

    “Respondents were also asked which was their primary news source: Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, “Print sources,” or NPR.”

    …hints at the reality of a conservative bias.

    That the MainStream Media (MSM) (Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Print sources) OR NPR hints at conservative OR liberal…. When did it shift?

    If it was FAST is this better or worse?

    If it was SLOW, why did we not know sooner?

    If they, whoever they are, get the ability to censor via an Internet Kill Switch or Bandwidth Caps, what than?

    As for alternative media, its the only way to go if you honestly want to be informed at what is really going on…

    Make sure you check out other country’s (non-NATO preferably) news sources to hear another side of what is really going on otherwise you will be a mushroom.

    You don’t want to be a mushroom!

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