Media Bias

Journalists who hold views consistent with their interests raise the issue of media bias. In a technical sense, no one is completely unbiased. Psychologists remind us that people must learn to distinguish reality, and how they learn affects what they see. In a practical sense, however, we can all agree that there is such a thing as intent reality and can agree on what it is. The divergence comes when facts are ambiguous or must be interpreted and when deciding what is interesting and what is not.

Journalists, unlike scientists, do not proof observations under controlled conditions. They do not have the luxury of formative the variables (time, place, subject, duration) of the events they cover. They cannot imitate the conditions under which the events occurred. The events concerning which journalists must report are not as well defined as those observed by scientists. The freezing temperature of water is highly definable; the effects of a new foreign policy on the balance of trade, a court decision concerning abortions of teenage pregnancies, or a bitter labor wallop on a community are not. Unlike the stony physical properties of objects scientists observe, journalists monitor the volatile and erratic human animal.

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There’s no meter that one can objectively view to measure degrees of propriety in political office, rightness of social or economic policies, nobility of a war, truthfulness in corporate news releases, or a million other things.

David Brinkley, veteran broadcast journalist, argues that a computer can objectively record information, but a reporter can’t.

If you put something in [the computer] and push the button you get back precisely what you put in, with no coloring, shading, changing or anything. To put the same requirement on a news broadcaster or any human being could mean that he was not in favor of anything or opposed to anything, didn’t believe in anything, did not reject anything, had no standards, no values–and therefore, I think, would probably be dangerous to society and probably should be locked up. (“The view from the trenches,” Broadcasting, Nov. 15, 1982, 96)

Although studies of the media provide contingent evidence supporting the case for media bias, none has methodically established that case. The attitudes of journalists can lead to biased reporting; and different other studies, such as those sponsored by the Media Institute, have shown that the media do not present a reasonable view on particular issues. However, there has been very little direct proof linking the attitudes of journalists with the imperatives of the medium to methodically explain media bias. Without this information, all that is probable is informed speculation.

Given the political and economic views of journalists, it would be unusual if news coverage were not extremely critical of business. Now this does not mean that journalists are consciously more critical of business or business executives than other institutions or individuals. It is more that there is a fundamental presumption against business. Business executives have an extra burden of proof to establish the purity of their motives and the uniformity of their interests with that of the public’s.

In addition to what may be called the ideological bias in news reporting, there is a bias linked with the medium in which the news is presented.

All news presented in the mass media of communication newspapers, television, radio–must be presented in such a way as to draw an audience. Network news, in part because of the forceful competition between networks for viewers, has become as much entertainment as news; but in all the media there is an effort to amuse by pointing out the unusual, the unpredicted, and the shocking. News must be presented in such a way that it will attract the concentration of the average person who is uninformed and has no prior interest in the topic. Thus, the medium focuses news reporting not just on the most important events but regularly on the most dramatic events, regardless of their importance. This explains why bad news is so often featured over good news and why the less interesting or more complex stories are avoided.

In an important article, “The Media and Business Elites” appearing in Public Opinion, S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman help explain the origins of press bias. The politics of the “media elite,” Lichter and Rothman demonstrate, is predominately liberal, as indicated by their political self-identification (54 percent left of center), voting record (overwhelmingly Democratic), and attitudes on social issues (favor redistribution for the disadvantaged, quality-of-life orientation).

Research on the role of media coverage in congressional elections has been really influenced by the notion that representatives seek coverage to ease reelection. Parker (1981) argues that wakefulness is the key to congressional candidate success, and the media are the leading mechanism by which to attain mass awareness. Payne (1980) believes that insecure members of Congress are more likely to seek publicity, apparently to help their reelection efforts. Goidel and Shields (1994) illustrate the positive relationship between component media use and support for incumbents. Goidel and Shields conclude that media revelation tends to bias voters toward incumbents. What all these studies (and a substantial number of others) have in common is a foundation on the assertion that media coverage is intrinsically beneficial. Toward that end, Maisel recounts the conclusion of numerous congressional challengers he interviewed: “newspaper coverage” that persistently mentioned the incumbent “was the hardest part of running” as a challenger (1982, 117).

Alternatively, several have come to the direct opposite conclusion, that is, more media attention can be detrimental to incumbent health (Niven and Zilber 1998). Specifically, national media attention has been associated to decreases in incumbent popularity in the 1990s. Given the advantage in campaign spending that an incumbent typically has (and the attendant television ads and direct mail pieces those dollars buy), less media coverage in fact translates into greater control for the member over the images seen. Using a measure of national prominence, based on media attention gathered by all incumbents running for reelection in 1990-1996, revealed that heavy national coverage translated into a loss of support of up to eight points for the most profoundly covered members of the House of Representatives.

Some researchers believe that the extent of effect the media have varies extremely by the attributes of the observer. Specifically, many who study racial politics believe that the political perspectives of African Americans will lead them to have a quite discrete reaction to media coverage (Davis and Gandy 1999).

African American voters are in a unique position of perceiving the significance of government in providing for their needs, while concurrently feeling a general distrust for a government run by, and potentially for, whites (Swain 1995). Scholars have argued that as African Americans attempt to find outlets to prevent being overwhelmed by white influences and power, their efforts can produce vastly diverse perspectives on politics  This fear of being overwhelmed is evident in Sigelman and Welch ( 1991, 52-53) findings, for example, that 82% of African Americans believe there is at least a “fair amount” of white prejudice against them and that 25% of African Americans believe a majority of whites accept the racial views of the KKK. Sigelman and Welch conclude, “It is clear that blacks see racial discrimination as an everyday incidence, not an historical curiosity” (1991, 59).

Meanwhile, a considerable majority of African Americans believe that the government is not doing enough to make certain equality (Sigelman and Welch 1991, 138). Toward that end, where they are a politically pertinent force, members of minority communities can be anticipated to practice “racially conscious politics” as part of an effort to assert their groups’ position. This forms a special relationship between minority voters and minority representatives. Kleppner argues that African American candidates can be seen by African American voters as a “means of political liberation” (1985, 154). Minority representation facilitates feeling not simply protected but also valued as a community.

This desire for representation among African Americans can create intense devotion. Swain quotes one African American member of the House as saying, “One of the advantages and disadvantages of representing blacks is their unabashed loyalty to their incumbents. You can almost get away with raping babies and be forgiven. You don’t have any vigilance concerning your performance” (1995, 73).

Bobo and Gilliam (1993) argue that racially cognizant politics emerge in minority communities with high political empowerment. Empowerment is significant, they theorize, because it increases levels of political belief, political efficacy, and the desire for political knowledge. Bobo and Gilliam, certainly, find higher levels of empowerment (which produces citizens who are more engaged in politics and more well-informed about government) where African American voters are represented by African American officials.

Given this line of thinking, a number of studies have recommended that African Americans will feel empowered by, and react completely to, coverage of African American representatives, while having much less obligation to white representatives and no positive reaction to coverage of white representatives.

Moreover, the media’s influence in American politics has almost certainly been on the rise all through the past two decades. Cable television now offers the average American a diversity of programming options from which to choose, including round-the-clock coverage from stations devoted completely to news. With the rise of several new communication technologies, most particularly the Internet, the reach of mass media has been increased further still.

While the Web is undoubtedly a developing medium for congressional offices, its significance as an outlet for members’ communication goals should not be ignored. Representative Edolphus Towns (D-NY) refers to his Web site as “a vehicle of empowerment for all.” Charles Rangel (D-NY), in his welcome message on his Web site, explains, “I have established this Web page with the needs of my constituents in mind. It will provide faster access to information on my activities in the U.S. House of Representatives and in my Congressional District. . . . I encourage you to use this site as yet another way to let your voices be heard.”(Rangel’s site is (www.house.gov/rangel/ ). His welcome message appears at (www.house.gov/rangel/welcmsg.htm ).

Moreover, 97% of House offices have Web sites; House Web sites receive as many as 1,000 visits per month and Web sites tend to mark substantially similar content as the traditional congressional newsletters that are sent to all constituents. By 1998 the expectation that representatives would have Web and e-mail systems up and running was strong enough that several newspapers featured stories on members who did not have computer communication systems. The Seattle Times quoted one voter as asking the paper to do a story on those members of Congress “who don’t bother to get with the times and get e-mail.” (Seattle Times, December 17, 1998). Finally, Web sites are measured significant enough that, just as franking privileges are balanced throughout the two months preceding an election, House members are not allowed to update their Web sites during the two months prior to an election.

All member Web sites have a biography page that presents the representatives’ background information and, to varying degrees, their political agenda. almost all the Web sites set off the biography with a separate page discussing the member’s issue agenda (which vary from including as few as 1 issue to as many as 30), and most offer recent press releases in their sites. Finally, a number of members highlight an issue or two with special links and separate pages dedicated just to that issue. Characteristically, in addition to member-created material, sites offer a number of nonpolitical links, such as to the representative’s home area, and a number of links to political, but not member-specific, information such as the congressional calendar, the Library of Congress, and the congressional legislative bill tracking service.

Though, concurrent with the onslaught of new media outlets has been an evenly important decline in customary socializing forces. Political parties, once dominant in most voters’ decision-making equations, have for a number of reasons seen their influence steadily decay as their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Parents, too, have begun to play a reduced role in shaping children’s political opinions and activities (Kahan 1999). In the absence of strong supervision from these two traditional agents of socialization, Americans — especially young Americans — are arguably more vulnerable to media images today than at any time in our history (Kahan 1999).

Influential media are not in and of themselves a problem, but they become a problem as the information presented is deceptive or fails to precisely reflect reality. While we cherish our First Amendment right to a free press, we must be equally vigilant in guarding against its abuse. Errors of fact or judgment are vault to happen from time to time, but a methodical pattern of deception or misrepresentation is potentially quite harmful. Almost by definition a democracy requires well-informed voters, and our citizenry can expect to be only as informed as the information it receives.

Numerous recent opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans disapprove of the way their news is accessible and distrust the mass media as an institution. One might as a result be tempted to assume that most Americans are selective consumers of news, continually on guard for potentially false or misleading information. In reality, though, it would be hard for even the most cynical among us to spot anything but the most blatant cases of reporter bias. Common sense dictates that the average American sitting at home watching the nightly news or reading the local newspaper will have a hard time discerning whether any given story is slanted, badly researched, or unrepresentative.

Additionally, news consumers could barely be considered a captive audience. With so many news outlets from which to choose, we obviously tend to gravitate toward the sources we believe most trustworthy. Thus, while Americans may mistrust the media as an institution, they are apt to assume that the majority of the news they personally receive will be a moderately accurate representation of reality all the more reason to believe that a systematic prototype of faulty news reporting is likely to produce erroneous public judgments on a diversity of topics.

Congressional Web sites on the Internet provide enthusiastic insight into members’ interests and priorities. By analyzing these sites, we are capable to discern that, in general, African American members do not effort to portray themselves in a different light than white members.

In an effort to observe congressional communication autonomously of what the press secretaries say it is, we turn to the Internet Web sites for members of Congress. Web sites provide access to cosmic quantities of congressional communication, including information geared particularly for the voters and information targeted for the media, providing a third party the chance to see if African American members are in any way supporting the media’s race-centered view of their work.

Though, the attitudes of the media toward the economy and business that this study reveals are mainly interesting. On the one hand, the media elite support capitalism: they do not favor nationalization of large companies; they favor less regulation of business and support discrepancy economic reward based on merit. On the other hand, they remain intensely critical of business because they believe that business leaders have more power than they deserve. Media elites believe that business is the most prominent group in society but that the media ought to be. Thus, media appreciation of business appears to be based on their belief that business is the main leadership group with who they are in contention for power. To an indefinite degree this bias affects public opinion and is translated into public policy.

Efforts to correct press bias will be pointless as long as reporters persist in their ideological contentment. Unlike their European colleagues, American journalists usually value political neutrality or “objectivity,” and most reporters believe that their primary accountability is to report the “facts.” Although recognizing the possibility of ideological distortion in others, they deny it in themselves. Stephen Hess, in The Washington Reporters, asked a sample of Washington-based journalists if they thought there was any press bias. A majority responded yes, and of those respondents almost all said the bias was left or liberal. When Hess asked them about their own politics, most said they were moderate or middle-of-the-road. Lichter and Rothman also found that members of the press tend to judge their colleagues as more liberal. This reveals that reporters are indeed middle-of-the-road or that they misperceive the politics of their colleagues, but that individually they feel they are politically neutral or unbiased.

Rothman and Lichter found that the journalism students are significantly more liberal and critical of business than business executives (Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, 1983). The conclusion drawn from these and similar observations is that education is undermining the business system, first, by producing nonbusiness professionals and managers such as journalists who are very vital of business, and, second, by producing business executives who are not entrusted to the values of the institutions that employ them.

This view leads to astounding ideological satisfaction, as revealed unwittingly by MacDougall. Though an excellent case can be made that a significant affliction of Americans in general and American business in particular is a lack of self-assurance, the opposite should be said of the American news media.

Much news reporting is completely inadequate and misleading and reflects the liberal, anti business beliefs of reporters–to the detriment of the public and public policy. This shortcoming will not be corrected until those who form the news undertake serious self-criticism.
References:

·         “The view from the trenches,” Broadcasting, Nov. 15, 1982, 96

·         Bobo Lawrence and Franklin Gilliam. 1993. “Race, Sociopolitical Participation, and Empowerment”. American Political Science Review 84: 377-393.

·         Davis Jessica, and Oscar Gandy. 1999. “Racial Identity and Media Orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint”. Journal of Black Studies 29: 367-397.

·         Goidel Robert and Todd Shields. 1994. “The Vanishing Marginals, the Bandwagon, and the Mass Media”. Journal of Politics 56: 802-810.

·         Kleppner Paul. 1985. Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

·         Maisel Sandy. 1982. From Obscurity to Oblivion: Running in the Congressional Primary. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

·         Niven David and Jeremy Zilber. 1996. Media Treatment of Minorities in Congress: Coverage and Its Effects.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.

·         Parker Glenn. 1981. “Interpreting Candidate Awareness in U.S. Congressional Elections”. Legislative Studies Quarterly 6: 219-234.

·         Payne James. 1980. “Show Horses and Work Horses in the United States House of Representatives.” Polity 12: 428-456.

·         Rangel’s site is (www.house.gov/rangel/ ). His welcome message appears at (www.house.gov/rangel/welcmsg.htm ).

·         S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, “The Media and Business Elites,” Public Opinion, Vol. 4, No. 5 (October-November, 1981), pp. 42-46, 59-60.

·         Seattle Times, December 17, 1998.

·         Sigelman Lee and Susan Welch. 1991. Black Americans’ Views of Racial Inequality: The Dream Deferred. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

·         Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, “Are Journalists a New Class?” Business Forum, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1983). pp. 12-17.

·         Swain Carol. 1995. Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

·         Swain Carol. 1995. Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

 

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