Bias in the media?

While some argue that media bias is a myth that is blown out of proportion, I’m here to confirm that it not only exists, but it’s widespread.

First things first, let’s set aside a few obvious examples. Fox News is clearly in the tank for the Republican Party, as are a majority of the most recognizable talk radio personalities. For the most part the opposite is true for MSNBC, with that channel’s assorted pundits primarily taking on a supportive role for the Democrats.

There, we’re not even one hundred words into this column and I’ve told you something that you already knew. But the truth behind the news media’s efforts at taking sides is simultaneously much more complicated and much more undeniable.

To shine a light on the subject, we must explore a few uncontested facts about the news business, at least how it relates to prioritizing how the news is presented to the average citizen.

In newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors are constantly striving to determine which stories will attract a larger audience. For newspapers and magazines, it’s the desire to sell more copies of the latest edition and, hopefully, increase the number of subscribers. For radio and television, the hope is to capture a larger immediate audience as a means of boosting ratings. In each case, the ultimate goal is to make the medium more attractive to advertisers by showing the size and loyalty of the consumer base of that medium. More readers, listeners, and viewers means more advertising revenue. Therefore, those compiling the news are often drawn to sensationalism in order to expand their audience.

So what works? There are two major categories of news stories that are guaranteed to instantly grab the attention of a large crowd: sex and violence. Just a few whispers of a sex scandal is a sure-fire way to encourage people to want to hear more. Same goes for an accident with injuries. Who among us doesn’t rubberneck at the scene of a crash? Sex and violence… two constants in the world of news.

But where does the bias fit in? And how does this apply to politics? Ah, here is where the consistency wavers.

At the beginning of this column I highlighted a handful of known examples of bias that essentially do not change. Put those aside and focus instead on the rest of the media world. In order to simplify this examination a bit, we’ll limit our study to television news coverage.

The bias is for what the reporters think is the most interesting story, one that is considered more likely to grab the attention of the average consumer. There are lots of examples in recent history. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 nomination over a crowd of better-known candidates. Carter as the incumbent losing four years later. The opportunity for a son to follow his father into the White House. In 2008, the election of an African-American man defeating an old white man was more unique than the other way around.

Am I saying that national reporters intentionally sway their coverage to favor one candidate over another? That’s not so easy to prove. But I am saying that those reporters at least subconsciously are driven to bring to their audience a viewpoint that would encourage voters to lean a certain way. But before you point fingers and try to lump selected reporters into one political camp or another, you should understand that political coverage changes like the tides. It’s all about the reporter’s perspective. What outcome makes for a more interesting story?

Mid-term elections are a great measurement of this. No matter who controls the White House, if the opposite party has a chance to take over Congress you can bet that the news media in general will excitedly cover that angle. Conflict between the two parties is the best way to generate major news stories, so the chance for the Republicans’ conquest of the Senate majority was a gift dropped into the laps of every major news organization. A Congress that gives a president everything he wants is not at all as exciting as having the two parties constantly clashing over even minor issues. It’s all about trying to cover stories that are going to boost the ratings.

Of course, there are times that a reporter or pundit has a vested interest in the outcome. Rush Limbaugh became hugely famous — and rich — during the Clinton presidency. His audience can expect to be more entertained when he rails against Democrats in power. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Limbaugh actually voted for Obama.

So, yes, there is bias. But it’s neither liberal nor conservative, at least not in a way that conforms to a certain political ideology. It’s all about ratings… and money.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on December 4, 2014.)

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