Whose Side Are We On Anyway? How Media Biases and the Business of News Affect Accuracy and Objectivity

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Bernie Sanders with journalist Chuck Todd on Meet The Press. Image courtesy of The Humanist Report.

The pressure to break or make news has existed since the beginning of mass journalism. While this pressure has potentially been magnified since the birth of online news sources and social media, the pressures journalists feel today to be the first to report, to have unique information, to appeal to readers from certain political parties, or to increase readership and the number of advertisers, among others, are relatively similar to the challenges that journalists have faced since the nineteenth century. While the pressures to be newsmakers or news-breakers are longstanding elements of journalism, it must also be understood that they are rooted in biases and desires to make profits. By acknowledging where the pressures come from, we are better able to understand the nature of the inaccuracies that we sometimes encounter in the media.

Accuracy, or lack thereof, can be defined in more ways than one. Reporting that distorts facts or favors certain storylines over another because of the benefits they may bring to a publication or outlet is a form of inaccuracy. Fact-skewing and subjective reporting have existed since the birth of mass journalism, and remain present in today’s digital media age. Bruce Thornton, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains the history of media biases in a piece published by the Institute in 2013.

He claims that newspapers have almost always had some sort of bias, especially when it comes to politics, and that the media’s tendency to sensationalize, obsess over scandals, and exaggerate certain elements of a story have been a commonality since the yellow journalism era of the late nineteenth century. Yet Thornton claims that as the number of newspapers across America increased over time, they have counterbalanced whatever biases have existed across the board.

He also points out that since the start of the television news era in the 1960s, journalists have been commonly viewed as shapers of public opinion instead of just fact reporters, which is a role that persists today in our social media-driven news environment. Furthermore, Thornton notes how mainstream media has evolved to be the profit-minded businesses we know today, and how that has enhanced biases and subjectiveness, especially when it means a publication can make more money.

While subjective, swayed or exaggerated journalism has existed for years, it is important to understand where it stems from. There is a pressure that most publications and news outlets face that compels them to sway or distort the facts. It can really be boiled down to the need to generate support from readers or viewers from certain political camps; the business incentives to maintain or increase readership and advertisers; and the competition to be the first to report something, which has intensified since the birth of the Internet and social media.

These things do not not always lead to inaccurate reporting, but they certainly increase the likelihood of it. Facts get distorted to better fit a political agenda, certain storylines are chosen over others because they may be more appealing or interesting to readers and advertisers, and sources are not vetted or double-checked in the interest of time and the race to be the first to publish or post a story. All of these things can be found in the coverage of the current presidential campaign.

Ezra Klein, the founder of Vox, analyzes why there are both media biases for and against Bernie Sanders. The case for media bias towards Sanders can be found in the fact that the media likes his messages. They are interesting and usually positive, which makes for happy readers. On the other hand, Sanders has been a longtime political figure and has offered reporters a lot of access for most of his career, meaning that most journalists already have opinions of him, some of which may be less than stellar.

Klein points to his colleague Matthew Yglesias to support his theories, who explains in a previous article the rationale behind why modern media is often biased to begin with.

“The media has a systematic self-interested bias toward exaggerating how close the race is . . . Television networks want people to tune in to their debates and town halls, which they are much more likely to do if they think something is at stake. And Sanders’s big fundraising has been transformed into big advertising dollars, which is literally money in the pockets of media companies,” writes Yglesias.

Klein broadened the conversation on biases to more than just presidential campaigns, however. He writes, “Whether reporters are trying to be ‘objective’ or not, we all constantly have to make decisions about which stories to cover, which gaffes to take seriously, [and] which storylines to follow.”

In general, the pressure to make news that corresponds with publications’ goals of aligning with a political agenda, achieving business goals in the form of revenue or readership, or being the first to post about something on Twitter, leads to an overall decrease in accuracy. Facts are spun or worded in certain ways, sensationalized to draw attention from readers, and are often not double-checked or confirmed in the interest of time.

It may seem as though journalistic ethics and objective reporting is doomed more so now than ever with the amount of information available online. Yet with the proliferation of news blogs, cable news channels, and social media engagements, Thornton’s idea of the relative self-corrective element of publications’ agendas and accuracy still exists, and ensures that the truth, although it may have to be pieced together over time, comes out and issues get reported accurately.

“Citizens have numerous options for news and information, and numerous alternatives that challenge, balance, and correct the partisan biases of the mainstream media. More importantly, this new media world means that in a democracy ruled by the people, the responsibility for sorting out truth from partisan spin lies where it should, with the free citizens who have the civic duty to seek out and evaluate information before voting for a party or policy. Media bias is no longer an excuse for neglecting that responsibility,” Thornton says.

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Cartoons courtesy of MediaMatters.org and TheConservativeCitizen.com