Media Bias: An Unbiased Guide

All news media is biased, including me.  And that’s the way it ought to be.  It’s the manner and degree of bias in the modern mass media that’s so very unfortunate.

According to recent polling by Gallup (itself possibly subject to statistical bias), only about a third of Americans trust the news to tell them the truth.  It’s that lack of confidence, deserved or not, which first led me to start discussing politics and social policy out here — and to name it “The Not Fake News”:  I want reasonable and reliable journalism out there somewhere.  And, even though I’m going to fail at that sometimes, it’s a worthy goal — and there damn well ought to be some people striving for it.

To be fair, there are quite a few solid journalists working today.  Folks will differ about their preferred news source; heck, as Will McAvoy (fictional, alas) put it, “People choose the facts they want now.”  But there are still those of us out there with the desire to think for ourselves and the willpower needed to put in the effort to make it happen — and those people deserve the truth.

The trouble with that is that every journalist will frame the facts differently.  No event takes place in a vacuum; everything has a place in history, and each story has its own context.  There is no news network capable of telling all sides of anything, if only because there’s nowhere near enough time in the day, much less for those restricted to a one hour program or eight column inches.  For that matter, a lot of breaking news is reported once and then long forgotten by the time all the details come out — if in fact they ever do.  But we the audience require the whole story; it’s not enough to say “Gunman kills eight in Pittsburgh” without also mentioning that it took place at a backyard barbecue, that there’d been escalating drug and gang violence in the neighborhood, and that reports indicated some of the attendees were not only armed but returning fire.

That particular headline is based on a real event, and I’m going to use it as an example to illustrate various common varieties of media bias.  Note that the following list is not intended to be exhaustive but illustrative:

  • Oversimplification – Due to the limitations of most media, not discounting the attention spans of the audience, every story gets oversimplified.  In our example, my summation above leaves the reader with an incomplete impression of events, permitting the creation of a false narrative.  In this case, one thing I could have expanded on was the (allegedly) organized and tactical nature of the attack, which was apparently carried out like a classic infantry ambush.
  • Incorrect Information – The night of the shootings, the death toll was reported variously as two, three, six, and eight.  According to later stories, it was eventually revealed that there were five adults and one unborn child killed by gunfire, and that all the fatal shots were (allegedly) fired from the same weapon.  Also, the event took place in Wilkinsburg rather than Pittsburgh proper.
  • Infotainment – 24-hour news channels demand stories even when nothing is happening.  Initially, this event was nationally covered largely because it fit into a months-long trend of violent acts, because it was sufficiently unusual, and because nothing else of note was happening at the time.  It was several days before the Next Big Thing occurred (Russian troop movements) and the story was eclipsed.  The demand for news in an otherwise dead time led to national coverage of every angle, including the (allegedly) controversial attitudes of a local news anchor.  She was later fired over the resulting furor, which arguably would never have made national news at a busier news time.
  • The Unusual – It’s important to note that only the unusual circumstances surrounding this event gave followup stories enough interest for the facts to be clarified; otherwise, it would have soon been forgotten even on a slow news day.  There’s a famous quote attributed to various editors that runs thus: “‘A dog bites a man’ —that’s a story; ‘A man bites a dog’ —that’s a good story.”  The trouble is, a lot of important occurrences go unreported just because they don’t happen to be sufficiently unusual.  A good demonstration of this principle can be seen in this story from the Post-Gazette: “There’s News In Planes That Don’t Crash”.
  • Opposites – One difficulty with most framing is that it’s often done in such a way that paints the story in black and white.  There’s a simplification, in this case between “shooters” and “victims”; in this event, that tends to hide that this was (allegedly) a revenge shooting for an earlier killing (also allegedly) committed by one of those shot.  That hardly justifies a slaughter at a backyard barbecue, but it does put it in a different context, one we really ought to be aware of.
  • Political – This is the form of bias people talk about the most, but it’s often the least practiced in fact — mainly because many stories are not political in and of themselves.  In the case of our example, however, political bias was extremely evident in the spin and framing of followup stories.  Every major network aired several pieces on gun control in the context of crime prevention, with respect to other recent mass shootings, and as a factor in the ongoing presidential campaign.  This was so very pervasive that I released not one but two exhaustively-researched articles on the topic myself — in the process discovering some facts that changed my own position slightly.  Curiously enough, the two weapons used by the attackers were (allegedly) found to both be stolen, which rather removes this incident from the context of the gun control debate — but that tidbit was, to the best of my knowledge, only reported by local station WPIX.
  • Cultural Bias – Media outlets tend to frame stories in a way that makes them easier for their audiences to understand, but in that way they pander to their preconceptions.  We think of this in terms of politics, that Fox News viewers tend to be conservative whereas NPR caters to liberal intellectuals, but it also occurs with respect to region and country.  The BBC, for instance, framed this as a typical gang shootout at the gateway to the American West; the New York Times focused on the apparent race of those involved; one Midwestern source concentrated on the death of the innocent unborn child.
  • Advertising – At another time, the national media might have opted to concentrate on the Russian takeover of the Donbass, mass protests in Syria, recent American sanctions against North Korea, or any of a dozen potential stories of international interest.  Instead, and arguably because that year involved record media buys by political campaigns, they opted to focus on one event that showcased a political hot potato.  Incidentally, that focus led to yet another of that year’s mini-spikes in firearms sales and NRA members.  Coincidence?  Probably not.
  • Bias Toward Fairness – Speaking of the boost in firearms sales:  There was a common theme in the conservative press at the time that the President was planning to seize firearms — despite a complete lack of evidence to that effect.  In point of fact, the Brady people, gun-control watchdogs, rated President Obama as ineffective as he possibly could be in that area.  Nevertheless, every other major media outlet covered gun seizures in opposition to the conservative narrative even though that angle was completely baseless.  Sometimes, there are two sides to a story; more often there’s one or five.  In this case, there was only one valid side — but it got covered as though there were two valid arguments.
  • Confirmation Bias – Reporters, editors, and media producers tend to be highly educated, intellectual, and fairly liberal in their political views.  As a result, they tend to see events from that perspective and then report them that way, even when the actual facts turn out to be somewhat different.  This shooting, for example, was reported as an offshoot of gang or drug violence and possibly even random; as it turned out, while there was a criminal backstory, it was (allegedly) motivated by simple revenge — and far from random.
  • Race and Gender – This was frequently reported in terms of race, as a black-on-black crime, but with a lot of time given to the pregnant woman who was killed.  In a sense that’s valid; in another, the motive was (allegedly) simple revenge, and race was immaterial.  As it happens, I’m at present unable to readily find any clear-cut and comprehensive analysis of the ethnicity of those involved from an unbiased source.  I’m sure it’s out there somewhere, but there’s just too much sensationalism to wade through for that search to be worth my while.
  • Power Bias – During the last presidential election, it was clear that many media outlets supported one Democratic candidate over the entire rest of the field, whether Democrat, Republican, or otherwise — so much so that immediately following the election, the New York Times explicitly apologized for it.  During this period, the major American media corporations (there are only five, or arguably six) held such polarized positions on values that many content editors opted to tacitly follow the corporate lead rather than risk their jobs.  That the risk was real was underlined by several firings and resignations, both public and private, during that period.  With this particular story, this can arguably best be seen in the emphasis on race, on gender, on firearms — and in the case of the fired news anchor.
  • Legality – In the United States in particular, the past decade or so has seen an erosion of source protection for the news media.  The government in particular frequently involves itself in what it considers breaches of national security; as well, the highly litigious nature of American society creates an environment that tends to repress free expression in the press.  For an example of this, scroll through the preceding list and look for the words “allegedly” and “arguably”.

There are two major sources of bias that have nothing whatsoever to do with our example.  But, because they’re common and influential, we’d be remiss to fail to mention them:

  • National/Governmental Bias – This can be readily observed in government-owned or controlled networks.  In the classic dictatorship, all the media is pro-government; in a strongly nationalist society, much of the media is at the least patriotic.  The BBC is in theory governed by an independent neutral board, but is nevertheless famous for downplaying stories that cast the government (and particularly the royals) in a bad light.  In the United States during a time of war, the vast majority of news stories about that conflict are strikingly in favor of national policy.  One well-known example of this is the use of the term “Terrorist” to describe an enemy whereas “Freedom Fighter” described him back when he was still an ally.
  • Bias Toward Experts – The media normally reports what recognized experts on any subject tell them to report.  Which makes sense; in any esoteric field, who would embrace the ideas of someone with no professional standing?  Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence that unpopular findings tend to be delayed until they achieve widespread acceptance — which, cyclically, is less likely to happen when the media refuses to credit it.  Conversely, this also tends to lend credence to any half-baked idea that gets published in any pseudo-scientific journal merely because it has the word “study” in the title.  It’s essential to note here that, in general, the experts tend to be right (which is why they’re called “experts”) and science reliable — but, given that journalists are rarely expert scientists, they often mistake the important for the merely self-important and vice-versa.  One well-known instance of this is that the public perceives Pluto as no longer being counted as a planet, whereas there’s actually a great deal of scientific division on the subject, opinions being almost evenly divided among astrophysicists.

As I mentioned before, the preceding list is far from exhaustive.  It’s also itself biased, which was intentional:  I deliberately framed each entry from the perspective of a single news story in a particular time.  I did this in order to demonstrate the value of perspective in reporting.

Had I simply listed a set of facts, this article would have been dead boring.  I tried to write it with a context, something to make it relevant to you, the reader, in order to make the individual ideas easier to understand.  And, while my own efforts are by necessity imperfect — all else aside, if I go over 2000 words, very few people make it to the bottom of the article, so I’m prone to oversimplify — they should serve to illustrate a basic truth of journalism, one proclaimed by the late great Hunter S. Thompson:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Journalists are human, and bias is both ubiquitous and frequently useful.  When kept within professional limits (which it often isn’t these days), it permits us to not merely memorize facts but instead to understand them, to relate to events in a manner that would otherwise be impossible.  I wrote the other day that there not only is no unbiased reporting, “…there shouldn’t be, because news isn’t just numbers and facts and figures. News is history coming to you live as it happens — and history is meaningless without context, without flesh and blood people living it and telling you in their own words. That’s why you fell asleep in eighth-grade history class, because without those things it’s dead and dry and dusty and boring as hell. And it’s why there’s no good to be found in unbiased journalism. Balanced, sure, when it’s appropriate — but never unbiased.”

By the way:  Since I’ve exceeded my 2000-word limit, I’d like to count the number of people who made it to the end of this article.  If you’re one, I’d appreciate it if you’d click this link; it’s to another article here on this site, one that rarely gets read.  If enough people are interested I’ll count the clicks and let you know.  And, as a broader sample has more validity, I’d be grateful if you’d also share this current Guide on Facebook or Twitter or what have you, whether or not you’ve read it all.

(Thompson quote from “Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72”.  Source material and background is varied and widespread; for the most part, you can find it yourself using Google or even Wikipedia.  I’d particularly like to mention BBC News, CNN, the AP News wire, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several other major media sources which are courteous enough to permit free public access to their published archives.)

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