Bias in Journalism
This editorial takes an in-depth look at bias in journalism, as it exists in our country, following a brief synopsis of human endeavor from pre-history to the Information Age. Your author would argue that in order to truly understand the nature of bias, it is first necessary to take a step back from our present understanding of the concept (as it exists in news reporting), and study the development of journalism in a broader sense, as related to the social science of History.
As is true for all social disciplines, History is imperfect. The noble intentions of enumerable historians over the centuries, to provide an accurate record of our species’ accomplishments, failures, triumphs and tragedies, have to variable extents been corrupted by the selfish proclivities that we all share. After all, we are flawed creatures. It stands to reason that our efforts to create and maintain a historical record will show spotting, as well.
Yet, perhaps our greatest strength lies in the ability to analyze our short-comings and adapt, in order to become more than we are. This essay is written in that spirit, and it is your author’s hope that his work may contribute in some small way to the awareness of bias in journalism, so that others may better guard themselves against it in the future. As an innovative chemist finds new ways to improve the yield in a specific reaction of substances, so must responsible journalists continuously strive to limit the influence of bias in news reporting.
From a Cave to Enlightenment
The history of mankind is marked by a series of extraordinary events. The multitude of artistic accomplishments, scientific breakthroughs, and philosophic illuminations that populate our history have served to advance us farther from the collective primordial ooze — where all life begins — than any other species this world has known. From the essential discoveries of the ancient world, perpetrated by unsung heroes whose names (if ever they had them) have never been recorded, we were given fire and the wheel, as well as spears sharpened with flint, and even the first known instances of creative self expression painted on rock walls. In recent centuries, the development of language and writing have allowed us to assign identities to the great doers among us, as well as dates to their deeds, so that posterity might have knowledge of those visionaries and (perhaps) even aspire to surpass them.
The act of recording human activities — as well as the people, places, and times involved — established History as a social discipline, which is essentially a retelling of events from those who bore witness to them, for those who did not. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that each instance of documented history began as an act of journalism — the field dedicated to writing or otherwise broadcasting news — which then appreciated over time into a matter of historical record. Just as a newly bottled red Bordeaux is left in a cool wine cellar to gather a layer of dust on the glass while aging, and yet is destined in it’s time to become much more than fermented grape juice; even so is each instance of journalism destined to appreciate, until it has been forgotten by all save those thoughtful connoisseurs of human progress that we call historians.
For instance, in September of 1504 a group of people gathered in a public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, as Michelangelo’s David was unveiled, thus marking one of the key moments in the Italian Renaissance. However, the Florentines only knew to assemble there at that moment in time, after having received word secondhand from people and devices (town criers, community postings, etc.) employed by the event organizers.
Similarly, throughout the 1600s, great thinkers like Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Francis Bacon toiled with such rational earnestness, that the period in which they lived would come to be known as The Age of Reason. During this time, the movement of falling McIntosh apples were mathematically calculated, heavenly bodies were observed through state of the art — by seventeenth century standards — telescopes, and humanity’s overall plight was improved by a reformist vision of justice and natural law. Thanks to the widespread implementation of printing press technology in Europe from the 1500s on (which gave birth to an enduring phrase that has since become synonymous with informative media: The Press), denizens could read all about the bold postulations of mental giants, and keep abreast of current events, by reading from sources which included the fledgling news periodicals available to them at the time.
Transcending Earthly Limitations
Undaunted by all of this human ingenuity, the world continued to play it’s part in the great cosmic ballet — solar cycle after solar cycle — and our joint endeavor proceeded simultaneously along the path of progress, all the while reported upon by practitioners of the evolving field of journalism. Somewhere between 1760 and 1840, advances made in the fields of textile production, metallurgy, and coal refinement fueled the Industrial Revolution. In 1914 the world went to war ” … [T]o end all wars ” (it didn’t take, and so the world gave it another try in 193912). In 1969, Neil Armstrong and company journeyed beyond the protective embrace of our life sustaining Mother, stalwartly facing the terrible and dark void of space, in order to land upon earth’s silent celestial companion — that ever elusive, luminescent, inspirational muse. Then, boldly stepping out onto a barren surface, and in defiance of the multitude who dared not conceive that it could ever be done, they at once took a giant leap for mankind, and announced to the world that we may — indeed, we must — dare to act on our dreams. By this time, technology had advanced far enough that an estimated five-hundred million people were able to share in this epochal event as it happened, by watching it unfold on their television sets, rather than suffer the limitations of reading about it after the fact.
In 1992, the last surviving clan of the Hominidae family was already well into the Information Age, and millions of people endured the cacophonous, epileptic seizure inducing sound of the first commercially available modems, in order to experience the latest craze of connecting with the internet. Two decades later, the act of getting — and staying — online has become so intertwined with the lives of billions, that the possibility of experiencing any downtime due to technical error is met with great anxiety — and, arguably for good reason. Never before in the history of our species has it been possible for individuals to amass as much knowledge and exchange ideas as easily, and as quickly, as right now. It is a very exciting time, and the possibilities are limited only by the scope of our imaginations!
However, such a vast influx of free information about every conceivable subject, coupled with the incredible power granted to anyone with a connection to broadcast messages globally, in seconds, logically presents us with an interesting problem: How do we distinguish information from misinformation? Since anyone can make themself heard in the ongoing, myriad conversations held around the world, how do we isolate the rational reports from the irrational? Until quite recently, the strongest (and most well funded) scribes seemed inevitably to shout down conflicting interpretations of human events — thereby winning credibility by default — but such is no longer the case. It is refreshing to consider that minority voices may now speak their peace, from a stage providing equal amplification to all comers, but the matter of establishing legitimacy has become remarkably more complex.
Throughout the course of our history, wherever there has been the potential for good, has there not been an even greater potential for ill? Such is the case with the vast advancements made in technology, that have allowed for instantaneous global communication. In the following installments, the clash between information technology and information will be explored in depth, as well as specific criteria that may be employed to assess the credibility of those who have taken it upon themselves to organize and disseminate that information.
The Nature of Bias (as It Exists in News Reporting)
The Oxford American Dictionary definition of bias is:
Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Additionally, the (so-called) “Father of History” — Herodotus — once commented that “Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.”
It is, perhaps, easy to understand this sentiment when taken in consideration with the seductive power of information. Just as the Serpent tempted Eve with the promise of knowledge — while leaving out several small details about the consequences we would all endure — so may a historian twist the facts, in order to win his or her audience over to a certain point of view. As discussed in previously, this kind of manipulative recitation has been employed many times over the years, whenever it has been in the best interests of the few to control how the many perceive events. Over time, such “official” accounts gain acceptance, largely because conflicting narratives were discouraged at the time of record. History has ever been written by the victors, as the saying goes; and although life in the Information Age has greatly reduced that particular problem, another has presented itself:
While it is true that technological breakthroughs in the field of global communication have (to a certain extent) weakened the power of self-interested organizations to dominate the real-time documentation of human events, they still wield a substantial amount of influence over a great multitude. This is due in part to the raging sea of conflicting points of view, that are now digitally available to anyone with a satellite signal or internet connection. Faced with the perpetual onslaught of current events, people desperately cling to the buoy of familiar institutions, in an attempt to keep their heads above the crashing waves, mistaking the prominence afforded those with near inexhaustible capital with integrity. In this way, unethical media empires are able to maintain a regimen of biased reporting, and be not overly concerned with losing a substantial number of followers. Moreover, it does not help that most people hear the word journalism, and immediately expect the practitioners of this discipline to, in the interests of good faith, discharge their duties faithfully in accordance with the Journalistic Code of Ethics. In essence, to report on events factually as they bear witness to them, regardless of personal sentiment.
Today, in the symbiotic progenitor to progeny relationship of journalism to history (and, of history to journalism), bias exists across multiple mediums and can take on a variety of forms: From an overzealous editor’s pen to a story buried on the last page of a newspaper; a photographer who hawkishly observes a politician or celebrity at a speaking engagement, waiting to snap pictures at only the most unflattering of moments (such as in the middle of a sneeze); the news anchor who rolls his or her eyes on camera in response to a question being answered by an interviewee; playing a quote out of context; or even the extreme example of a producer editing film to make it appear as though someone has said something that they have not. In the area of news reporting, instances such as these (and others) betray a lack of objectivity, to varying degrees. Furthermore, the offending parties have now stepped over the line of neutrality with intent to influence, as well as to inform. If left unchecked, even minor infractions to objectivity can eventually devolve into full blown salesmanship.
It has been argued, at length, that the nature of bias in journalism is such that it can never be completely eliminated. For example, simply by deciding what news to report is in itself showing bias. However, willful bias coupled with deceptive presentation and emotional manipulation, in order to exploit the unwary, can be defined in the best case scenario as Barnumesque(*).
Vetting a News Source
Your author will not attempt to debate the moral and social implications of organizations who claim strict adherence to the ethics of journalism, and yet do not. Nor will he lay accusations against specific entities, preferring to let readers make their own determinations about likely offenders. The complex issues surrounding unfaithful reporting — and by extension humanity’s predisposition towards dishonesty — are greater than any one company, or number of companies. At the very least, such motivations date back to the moment Cain responded innocently to God’s inquiry, as to the whereabouts of Abel, with: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In any case, the ability to exercise free speech ensures that organizations have the right to say — not to mention call themselves — whatever they want. Also, it is worth pointing out that the nature of our society is such that a purveyor of goods and services will go out of business, if there exists no buyer’s market for his or her product. In this regard, the words of Juvenal seem relevant, concerning his thoughts on how those in authority are able to placate the masses, with Panem et circenses (or “Bread and circuses”).
However, it is essential to distinguish between spectacle and journalism, if only for the sake of consumer awareness. For example, on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles starred in a radio broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, wherein a fictitious alien invasion from Mars was chronicled in real-time under the guise of an emergency radio news bulletin. Some people who tuned into (what would later be known as) “The Panic Broadcast” late missed the introduction, and thanks to the news report structure of the program, were duped into actually believing that Martian’s had invaded Earth!
Although this example is extreme, it serves to call attention to the power afforded those who are entrusted to relay accurate information. In the United States particularly, the humid fog of partisanship and manipulation is so pervasive in journalism, that it can at times be difficult to decipher objective news from political distortion. Generally speaking, if a news entity seems reluctant to argue counter to an individual point of view, then it may be perceived as a signal that the organization’s primary focus is to sell a product or philosophy, with (at best) a secondary intention to inform. Supporting such entities may be likened to belonging to a social or sporting club, in that they represent a form of entertainment, as well as a refuge where like-minded people go to seek validation of their preferences and experience camaraderie, within the context of an “Us vs.Them!” environment. The inherent danger comes when these same people are unable — or unwilling — to consider that their favorite publication, radio station, website, or cable news channel may not be the most reliable source for information. After all, it is easy to listen to someone with an ax to grind, if you yourself wish to grind the same ax.
That said, it should be expected that each and every reporter, even those whom hold the highest regard for journalistic ethics, will from time to time give way to emotion and exhibit some form of bias. They are only human, and as such imperfect. A responsible journalist will realize this, and will periodically take the time for honest self-reflection, which is necessary to determine whether he or she has lost objectivity. It is also helpful to have a similarly objectivity-oriented support structure in place, in the form of colleagues and editors, to provide a checking force against unbalanced reporting.
Of course, all of the self-reflection in the world becomes irrelevant, if a journalist happens to be employed by an organization whose mission it is to push a specific agenda. This is known as “spin,” or the willful manipulation of facts in order to influence the perception of an audience. In the third and final installment of this editorial — Assessing the Objectivity and Reliability of a News Source — I will make my conclusions about the state of journalism in our country, as well as detail a method for determining the validity of a news source.
Assessing the Objectivity and Reliability of a News Source
We depend on news companies to keep us informed of what happens in our world, but not all journalistic organizations are created equal. For example, most people would not trust a supermarket tabloid as much as a reputable publication. But what are the criteria that separates a legitimate news source from an illegitimate one? When vetting a news company, it is useful to ask yourself the following questions, which have been designed to grant insight into a news provider’s overall objectivity and reliability:
I. Sources: Are the sources cited — within the reporting of journalists sponsored by the organization — consistently reliable, and fully quoted without attempted obfuscation, for the purposes of lending credence to an argument?
II. Corporate Sponsorship: Does the agency accept corporate sponsorship? If so, do advertisements from sponsors take up more space or airtime than actual news? Moreover, is the agency affiliated with (or even owned by) a corporation who may have interests conflicting with an honest reporting of some stories?
III. Editorializing: Are facts and opinions clearly distinguished, and labeled as such in separate sections? If they are, is a concerted attempt made by the organization, to offer counterarguments to any editorials and op-eds, which appear in the opinion sections? Furthermore, does the content of news supersede the content of editorial material in the publication or program?
IV. Ulterior Agendas: Is a noticeable emphasis placed on stories which are easily segued into political and ideological endorsements or criticisms?
V. Emotional Manipulation: Is an obvious effort made to elicit an emotional response from the reading (or viewing) base? Similarly, are stories that seem broadly applicable in a journalistic sense given the most attention by the organization, or is a heavy focus placed on more localized human interest pieces, designed to shock or otherwise engage the public?
1) Are the sources cited- within the reporting of journalists sponsored by the organization- consistently reliable, and fully quoted without attempted obfuscation, for the purposes of lending credence to an argument?
Trust must be earned by a media outlet. This is done by establishing a reputation for accuracy, honesty, and thoroughness — of following the facts wherever they lead. The way in which an organization may begin to build a strong foundation upon these principals, is by treating legitimate sources with integrity. It is simply unacceptable for a reporter to set about the prerequisite investigation required, before embarking upon a work of journalism, as having already made up his or her mind about where the facts should lead. To treat an informant as a yes man or woman — to be used as a tool in the pursuit of validating an already decided upon point of view — reduces the source to that of co-conspirator in a deception, wittingly or otherwise. Also, a reporter who approaches a story with such motivations, will be more likely to seek out people whose testimony reinforces a preferred interpretation of events, and disregard information provided by others who may not share the same view, at the expense of credibility. The final piece of “Reporting” (for lack of a better term) will, at best, become a sin of omission — or fiction by degrees — and should immediately be considered suspect.
For instance: A newly elected mayor, whom a reporter for a local newspaper dislikes, unveils a controversial piece of legislation. The paper tasks this reporter with writing a piece on the proposed bill, gauging public reaction. The reporter proceeds to walk out of the building, and rather than take opinions from a broad range of random passerby — of all walks of life and socioeconomic circumstances, which would more accurately represent the diversity of the community — he instead decides to journey to a bar across town, where patrons whom disapprove of the mayor are known to congregate, and interviews them for the story exclusively.
Additionally, the reporter visits the mayoral office, and lays in wait at the door. After a few minutes, a low level intern exits the building, on her way to Starbucks with a multi-paged coffee order. The reporter leaps from the bushes in ambush, firing off a series of rapid questions designed to flummox the woman, and the intern — who is already filled with anxiety over the complexity of coffee preferences exhibited by her co-workers — justifiably snaps at the reporter for startling her (and also employs a few choice euphemisms while telling him exactly what he can do with his questions). Satisfied, the reporter traipses back to his office to type out the story, citing the intern’s angry retort as “feedback about the new legislation,” from an insider at the mayor’s office, in response to questions posed by “concerned citizens” like those at the bar.
II. Corporate Sponsorship
2) Does the agency accept corporate sponsorship? If so, do advertisements from sponsors take up more space or airtime than actual news? Moreover, is the agency affiliated with- or even owned by- a corporation who may have interests conflicting with an honest reporting of some stories?
Just as a senator who solicits campaign contributions from corporate entities must inevitably be suspect of cronyism, so must a corporate owned news organization that is funded by advertising revenue operate with a perpetual conflict of interest. If Company A, who is in competition with Company B, provides a significant amount of income to a news service, what is to stop the service from skewing a report on Company B, painting them in an overly negative light, so as to make Company A seem more favorable? The service becomes even more complicit, in the event that it is faced with a decision on how to cover a story about (impropriety on the part of) the parent company itself. News gathered from an organization in such a predicament, cannot be trusted any more than a product review written by the original manufacturer could be. It is foolish to assume otherwise.
3) Are facts and opinions clearly distinguished, and labeled as such in separate sections? If they are, is a concerted attempt made by the organization, to offer counterarguments to any editorials and op-eds, which appear in the opinion sections? Furthermore, does the content of news supersede the content of editorial material in the publication or program?
This is not to suggest that opinions have no place within a news organization — merely that they be clearly presented as such. Similarly, dissenting points of view should be given equal space, prominence, and attention, to instill confidence in followers that an organization, as a body, means to maintain neutrality in all matters, while executing it’s primary function — that is, to inform. After all, arming the public with a working knowledge of popular arguments being made for or against contentious current events, serves to infuse these issues with the vitality that distinguishes them from topics covered in an encyclopedia. A particularly savvy chief editor may even wish to periodically assign his or her deputies to argue contrary to their personal feelings on an issue, in the interest of fostering an environment where everyone is encouraged to keep an open mind. In any case, though opinions are a healthy part of a journalistic organization’s internal makeup, they must not overpower the primary mission to deliver unslanted news. Otherwise, the entity may no longer consider itself to be an objective provider of information. Rather, it has become a soapbox for proponents of some particular agenda to stand upon and preach from.
IV. Ulterior Motives
4) Is a noticeable emphasis placed on stories which are easily segued into political and ideological endorsements or criticisms?
For a population whose elected government is fundamentally dependent on compromise to retain cohesion, the matter of bias in the news media may become much more urgent as divisive entities gain power and influence. Enthralled followers of a slanted news company get absorbed by the murky bubble of the organization’s perception, which in turn serves as a filtered lens from which these people will then interpret their world. In the physical realm, when two bubbles collide they combine to form a larger, but in the false reality born of media bias, two opposing bubbles clash, rebound, then clash again — inexplicably refusing to join together, or progress to the next phase of existence. A careful look at the U.S. Congress provides insight into a similarly unnatural state. So similar, in fact, that an impartial observer might be tempted to hypothesize, that there exists an indirect correlation between American constituents and representative officials, their preferred news sources, and the no-compromise attitude in Washington that has made our country a laughingstock. “Politics is perception,” as many are wont to say on Capitol Hill, and apparently (to many) so is news.
V. Emotional Manipulation
5) Is an obvious effort made to elicit an emotional response from the reading (or viewing) base? Similarly, are stories that seem broadly applicable in a journalistic sense given the most attention by the organization, or is a heavy focus placed on more localized human interest pieces, designed to shock or otherwise engage the public?
A legitimate news organization will attempt to give people the facts, but should also be expected to exercise (at least a modicum of) restraint before attempting to influence how others feel about the facts. Unfortunately, the nature of media in a capitalist environment is such that journalists are tempted to assume the role of salespersons. If no one is “buying” the services provided, then the matter becomes more philosophical in nature (re: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, can a reporter pay his or her rent?). One way to grab the attention of consumers, is to play off of the fascination that many people seem to have regarding stories about sex, violence, and scandal. Though this type of vice reporting may not abound with substance or relevance in the broad sense, it is particularly effective in keeping people interested, and is virtually guaranteed to provoke a strong emotional reaction.
In the U.S, for example, cable news entities will periodically focus on an arbitrary capital crime, committed somewhere within the nation’s borders, and dedicate an exorbitant amount of resources to covering the story. Ratings for broadcasts, as well as internet site traffic, invariably increase during a time of heightened national awareness about the event, and suddenly people on opposite ends of the country are discussing the matter in their living rooms, or at the office water cooler, despite having no actual knowledge of the circumstances — aside from what has been gleaned from the media. However, these cable media networks will be most concerned with keeping people “tuned in” to the service that they are providing, rather than reporting news (as a matter of survival in the war of ratings). To that end, a revolving panel of legal and law enforcement “experts” will be paraded in front of the studio cameras, to offer speculative insight into the matter in a way that ensures the public will stay emotionally vested. Counter-intuitively, a cable news company may de-emphasize the actual facts of a criminal case by employing this tactic, while technically still in the process of reporting on it! In this way, the company can ensure that it is continuously profiting from the situation, and in essence, is “paying the rent.”
As despicable as this practice may sound, it is — again — necessary to understand that a news company would have no logical motive for behaving in this way, were the majority of their target demographic more interested in substance rather than flash. In our (U.S) economy, supply and demand ultimately dictates what a service will provide; and while sensationalist crime reporting may leave a bad taste in the mouth of you, dear reader, it is important to realize that companies only bother with it in the interest of giving the bulk of people what they want. The defining characteristics of a society are, perhaps, measured best by observing the diversions which occupy the body politic (Rome is to gladiatorial combat as U.S.A. is to true crime genre). Much in the same way that medieval executions were held in front of a crowd, while the king or queen conducted policy behind closed doors, criminal trials are given national exposure in the U.S. of today, while matters of substance pass relatively unnoticed from public awareness. This will continue to be so, until the majority of people expect something more.
Demanding a Higher Standard
What do we expect from our modern town criers? What does it say about a society comprised of people, whose majority allow themselves to be so brazenly pandered to, by individuals and organizations whom they know will always tell them what they want to hear, and never challenge them to open their minds, or explore alternative points of view? Within the disciplines of history and journalism, there exist no shortage of entities who pollute the atmosphere of observable events with the smog of bias, and anyone who is content to receive information exclusively from such sources, might as well be getting their news from a late night infomercial.
Few things are as sad as the exploitation of ignorance, save perhaps apathy on the part of the exploited. Americans have assumed the role of an easily directed mob, content to lap up the jaded rantings of megaphone wielding, pseudo-journalistic shock jocks, many of whom divide their time decrying their ideological rivals, and championing their (corporate sponsor approved) message, while those who remain serve as pushers for the majority’s narcotic-like addiction to stories dealing with sex, violence, scandal, or a mixture of the three. With alarming frequency in our country, substantive news reporting is dwarfed to comparative irrelevance, when measured against the crushing weight of thinly veiled editorials which drip with bias, unnecessarily thorough coverage of celebrity break-ups or otherwise asinine antics, and semi-annual media circuses for the unlucky winners of capital crime lotteries.
From the code of ethics, a journalist is an individual who is dedicated to: “… [T]ruthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability- as these apply to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.” A legitimate news organization is built around individuals such as these, and as such they will strive to instill confidence in their brand, by providing consistent and reliable information that has not been intentionally manipulated, or conspiratorially curtailed, to serve alternative interests. While it is true that there exists a myriad of media enterprises who purport to be wholly journalistic in nature, many are not. In evaluating a news source for reliability, there are a few criteria to consider, including: Whether or not the organization uses reliable sources; Corporate sponsorship; The relative prominence of editorial content to news coverage; Whether or not an undue amount of energy is invested in political or ideological commentary; And whether or not an obvious attempt at emotional manipulation is employed, in part by reporting on an over-abundance of (localized) human interest stories. Also, it is worthwhile to consider that if no market existed for slanted news, then companies would not be able to make money producing it. Therefore, it is up to the skeptical individual to take responsibility for his or her education regarding current affairs, as there is little incentive for companies to do so in a free-market society, while there is a profit to be made off of an undiscerning or apathetic public, that will consistently- and happily- devour that which is sensational, diversionary, and of little consequence.
* ‘Barnumesque’ is a term used by your author, to describe the kind of unethical- and opportunistic- salesmanship employed by P.T. Barnum.