13 December 2007

Media bias

A recent study shows many Americans don't trust the media in their coverage of this media election. Depending on who you support, it can seem they focus on your candidate for all the wrong reasons and the other guy gets too much positive coverage.

In a related note, this last week I've had to write three 10-page papers for three different classes. I finally finished the last of them this morning; a paper on .... media bias.

To help you share in my joy at being juuuust about done with finals, here's the paper.

Oh, and I guess you could get some interesting insight into the topic of bias, too.

(Warning: extreme length alert)

Cracked Lens: Bias in Journalism

I can't exactly remember the first time I realized that the news I watched and read wasn't entirely impartial. I think it was more of a process; as I started to develop my opinions about politics and world events, I noticed opposing views were frequently broadcast by major news outlets. This raised a lot of ire in my 13-year-old mind. As most teenagers believe, I was under the impression that my way of thinking was the right way, and that these newspeople were being irresponsible by letting their incorrect biases show through.

Over the past twelve years, I've slowly grown to realize that the world is often more gray than black-and-white. I've seen that my initial impressions of events and issues are often incorrect. Over the same period of time, I decided to pursue a career in journalism, and needed to reconcile my belief that most people in that field were agenda-driven hacks. I found the idea of working among people who were unprincipled and had values that were completely opposite of mine was not appealing. I asked myself if my view of the journalism field was an accurate one, and jumped into research.

Before we get too far into this topic of media bias, we first need to explore the term “bias.” What does this mean as it applies to the journalists? To begin, let's discuss the different ways bias can be found in the news.

First, there is the most obvious kind of bias: a reporter intentionally adding editorialistic thought to what should be a hard news story. A report on drug-usage rates in Cleveland becomes a diatribe against what the reporter feels are inefficient state laws against drug dealing. An investigation into nannies with felony records is a chance for the writer to voice his or her opinion on the death penalty. Many people (including myself) hate these kinds of stories... unless the opinion expressed coincides with our own. In this case, we find ourselves nodding in agreement, completely unaware that the story was biased in the first place.

Why does this happen? I believe a big part of the answer to this question is that writing about our own beliefs and opinions is easy. I've noticed during my experiencing working for the Scroll at BYU-Idaho and The Post Register in Idaho Falls, that writing a column lambasting people who can't park correctly is more fun than writing about the latest high school girls basketball game. It's entertaining to rant and rave; it's less fun to be objective and report on the facts. In short, biased reporting is lazy reporting.

Another form of bias comes from journalists who intentionally inject bias into their writing in an evil attempt to brainwash their readers into becoming neo-Nazis. I believe these people are far and few between, but they exist, and they come from both sides of the political spectrum and all belief systems. There are evil Christian writers who preach hate towards those who don't believe exactly as they do. There are evil pro-choice writers who portray their opponents as villains and misconstrue the pro-life position. Luckily, it is often easy to spot the evil journalist, as spittle from their frothing mouth covers whatever they write. The danger, however, is that they do, on occasion, convert individuals to their way of thinking. What should be done about this? Muzzling the evil journalist only flies in the face of the First Amendment, but letting him or her continue unabated may cause damage to society.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this situation is to fight them with truth. Other writers need to expose the evil journalist's arguments as flawed and unconvincing. That way we preserve free-speech rights and limit the influence of his or her writings.

As we examine the middle ground between the lazy writer and the evil writer, we find the well-intentioned writer. The well-intentioned writer thinks he or she is expounding truth and exposing darkness in their articles. They think that they are doing the world a favor by giving them a little more light and knowledge than they had before. The results are often the same as those you get from the evil journalists; impartial reporting affecting the people who absorb it. However, the difference between the two is that the well-intentioned journalist often comes off as more of a nuisance than a real threat.

The second kind of bias in journalism I'd like to cover is corporate bias. In today's age of gigantic business conglomerates, it's hard to keep track of who owns who. Disney owns ABC and ESPN, for example. Time Warner owns Warner Bros. Entertainment and CNN. It seems that there are about four huge enterprises that own every media outlet in America these days. And someday they may all merge into one, who knows?

The problem with this melding-together of different news sources is that with it come certain expectations. ABC is under a lot of pressure to avoid broadcasting stories that throw ESPN into a negative light. Fox News will never air a story about the evils of Time Warner. CNN won't ever lambast America Online for being a horrible internet provider. If another company is under the “family umbrella,” it's off-limits to critical investigation. Puff pieces extolling the virtues of “brother” companies, on the other hand, are encouraged. That's why Time Magazine ran stories about Hairspray and Rush Hour 3 in the weeks before these movies were released. There's a big “you pat my back and I'll pat yours” mentality within these “families.”

What this means is that certain news items go intentionally unreported. Other information, oftentimes deemed “not newsworthy,” becomes the cover story for a magazine or feature report on a nightly newscast. While Americans tend to see through this kind of blatant cross-promotion and self-aggrandizement, the former example of important stories going unnoticed is a major problem in the media today.

The third type of bias in journalism to cover is sensationalism. Sensationalism is defined as exaggerating the effect or importance of a certain story for the sole purpose of exploiting public interest and thereby increasing ratings or readership. Controversial subjects are often used in sensationalistic reporting.

An example of this is the 1997 claim by a company named Clonaid to have successfully cloned a human embryo. Despite later investigations revealing there was no proof whatsoever that Clonaid had accomplished such a feat, or even that Clonaid was a real company, several news outlets such as CBS and ABC featured stories on the event. Why? Because cloning was a hot topic in the late 90's. After the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, and the resulting public fervor surrounding the event, newspeople knew stories on human-gene reproduction would sell.

The fourth and final type of bias that is important to understand is selection bias. This kind of bias is impossible for journalists to avoid. Selection bias is seen as media outlets choose what stories to report on. As there is only so much space for news in a newspaper after you figure out where the ads go (this space is known as the “news hole”), and there are only so many minutes in a half-hour local news broadcast, not every story can be told. Not even all the newsworthy stories can be told. Therefore, by choosing which car accidents and political scandals and wars to report on, newspapers and television stations express a bias.

This can negatively impact the community if the media are not observant. By noticing what issues are important to the safety and well-being of the public and then reporting on them, editors can help their community to progress and thrive. Not doing so, on the other hand, means important topics go undiscussed, and the public can suffer.

The first three types of bias previously discussed can be eliminated, if journalists work really hard at it and have editors and managers who agree that this should be done. But the fourth kind, this selection bias, will always exist, unless we somehow manage to create a supernews computer capable of recording everything that happens in the universe and making it accessible to the people. And even then the public would be expressing selection bias as they chose which stories to read.

I therefore propose that journalistic bias is impossible to eliminate completely. Since this is true, let's focus on types of bias that can be controlled: political and social biases, which are the most researched and discussed types of bias. Is CNN really a bastion of liberal thought as Fox News tells me? Is Fox News really Dick Cheney's lapdog, as CNN tells me?

If you asked the average person, the most widespread understanding of the term “bias in journalism” would be that the traditional news sources, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, The New York Times, and others, broadcast and write their stories with a deliberate and obvious liberal slant, while Fox News and The Wall Street Journal broadcast and write their stories with a deliberate and obvious conservative slant. Both sides constantly scream at each other for not being impartial and failing to report just the facts. Each side has its crusaders.

For the conservative side, there is Bernard Goldberg. Goldberg worked for CBS for 28 years until, in 1996, he accused the network of encouraging a systematic liberal bias. After being fired from the network, Bias published the book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News in 2001. For his book, Goldberg combed through several years of news stories from many sources and listed hundreds of examples that he felt contained blatant liberal bias.

In response, author Eric Alterman wrote the book What Liberal Bias? Alterman specifically notes that he wrote this book to counteract the effects of Bias, which spent some time as a New York Times number-one bestseller. Alterman rightly criticizes Goldberg as writing no more than a collection of examples showing left-wing bias in the media. There is no attempt at using scientific method. Goldberg doesn't even have notes documenting his examples. There is little practical use for Bias.

However, while Alterman exhaustively (and arrogantly) documents his examples, he also fails to use any logic or scientific method. Alterman picks several liberal talking points, such as “Bush clearly stole the 2000 presidential election,” and “Clinton was attacked mercilessly by the media,” and shows article after broadcast after editorial supporting his view. What Liberal Bias? is no more than a mirror-image of Goldberg's book. The two are merely pictures of the same boxing match, taken from different sides of the ring.

One source that seriously puts into question journalistic impartiality in covering politics is a report made by MSNBC's Bill Dedman. Dedman researched the campaign contributions of journalists, paying special attention to who they gave to.

MSNBC.com identified 144 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 17 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties.

One of the more interesting writers profiled in the report was NY Times Magazine writer Randy Cohen. Cohen gave $585 to Moveon.org in 2004, and when confronted with this action, which clearly violated the Times' policies against such contributions, compared the organization to the Boy Scouts. Either Cohen is blatantly partisan or horrendously unintelligent. Neither option is comforting when you consider the wide audience he reaches.

In the realm of media members who show bias, and on the other side of the political aisle, we must include oft-criticized Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly hosts a conservative television and radio show and frequently discusses political topics. A May, 2007 Indiana University study of O'Reilly's “Talking Points Memo” editorials used on his television show discovered that the host's strategies in this segment are comparable to propaganda devices used by Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman-Catholic priest who openly supported Hitler and Mussolini in 1930's America. For example, fear was used “in more than half of the commentaries [that were part of the study], and O'Reilly almost never offered a resolution to the threat."

O'Reilly also uses name-calling on a frequent basis. His seeming inability to discuss issues without labeling the opposition in a derogatory way makes him hard to take seriously, and only adds to the negativity surrounding American politics.

While it is clear that bias comes from both political parties in America, it is difficult to measure the true extent of bias in the media. One of the reasons for this is a phenomenon called experimenter bias. Experimenter bias simply means that liberal pollsters will find that the media have a conservative bias, while conservative pollsters will discover that the media is left-leaning. This is a type of confirmation bias, where people running a study find what they were looking for in the first place. The results can also be due to carefully-worded poll questions that are designed to elicit the desired response from those surveyed (Loaded questions par. 1).

Another problem with measuring media bias is that it is difficult to establish where moderate ground is. It is popular today for people to declare themselves “moderate,” as both “liberal” and “conservative” have so many negative connotations associated with them today that people don't want to be labeled with either one. The problem with this is that everyone leans one way or the other. A former student at BYU-I complained that back home, she was considered moderate, but since coming to Rexburg, a veritable hotbed of Republican support, she was designated a hardcore leftist. Since “back home” was Massachusetts, I believe that she was considered a moderate there. However, since Massachusetts is well-known for containing many citizens with liberal beliefs, the middle point for the scale they were using to measure political alignment was most likely significantly to left. The same can be said of southeastern Idaho, just with an opposite political tilt.

This means conservatives will view the media as left-leaning, and liberals will view the media as right-leaning. There's a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from believing your political views are not represented by the media; it gives one the perceived right to rant and rave about how underrepresented your belief systems are, and we have already discussed how much fun it is to rant and rave.

Because it seems impossible to completely eliminate bias from the media, and measuring the true extent of bias seems beyond our grasp, finding ways to counteract it is a daunting task. One method for doing so is the point/counterpoint format for debate. The Deseret Morning News uses this method in its Sunday “Viewpoint” section, as former Democratic Utah Congressman Frank Pignanelli and former Republican political advisor LaVarr Webb are given equal space each week to present their views on a specific issue. In this case, point/counterpoint is fairly effective. Pignanelli and Webb do a good job of remaining civil towards each other, and intelligent points are made from both sides. Even though I have many conservative beliefs, I find myself agreeing with Pignanelli views more often that expected. If done well, point/counterpoint can be a powerful tool in removing bias from the media.

However, if done poorly, this method becomes completely ineffective. Fox News' show Hannity and Colmes is an example of this. Sean Hannity is a well-known and very outspoken conservative radio show host. In this television show, he is pitted against Alan Colmes, radio host of The Alan Colmes Show and devoted liberal. While Hannity is not the most articulate or intelligent debater, he is still an efficient communicator, and makes Colmes look like Napoleon Dynamite on a regular basis. By choosing such a weak representative for the left, Fox News makes a mockery of the point/counterpoint method. Conservatives who watch the show simply find a confirmation for their beliefs, while liberals realize Colmes is a bad choice to fight for their values and become disinterested in the venue. In his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, liberal author and radio host Al Franken calls Colmes "a moderate milquetoast" and "a liberal on-air punching bag." Society is not benefited from this poor use point/counterpoint discussion.

As I researched media bias, I became discouraged. Was there no way to eliminate or at least reduce slanted reporting? I believe this responsibility lies with each journalist individually. Outsiders cannot effectively police where bias is coming from, or even if it exists, and therefore each writer needs to examine his or her own methods for reporting to see if they are honestly striving to present honest and fair news to the American people, regardless of what we feel “the other guys” are doing. If we can get to that point, I believe we will go a long way towards removing bias from media sources.

But in the end, I believe the bias inherent in journalism can have some good effects, even if bias is not good in and of itself. If people will make an effort to get their news from sources that they believe are slanted towards the other side as well as from sources they agree with, a kind of dialogue can take place in their minds. By sorting through opposing arguments, they can better come to a conclusion that is truly informed, and that is a worthy goal for all citizens of this great country.


Mandi said...

You're so smart. I have a smart husband. He should definitely go to grad school.

Steven said...

I'd give your paper an "A". Will you teach me how to be so smart?

Brandon said...

There's no way either of you read the entire thing.

But thanks anyway. :)