Media bias: “Not always a bad thing”

As long as communications involve humans, those communications and how they’re interpreted will involve bias. That is to say, the how information is initially produced, consumed by audiences, interpreted by humans, perceived and then communicated to others. Scholarly researchers should self-examine and admit to their biases, which might include how their gender, background, experiences, culture, environment, source of funding and other factors might affect the results, according to Creswell (p. 202).

As a former award-winning community reporter, I took to heart the journalist ethics (which one might call an oxymoron) during my three years of professional experience. However, the digital age has complicated the issue of media bias that deserves more examination.

“The dominant means of communication in a given society influences the production and control of information,” according to Jenkins, Ford, and Green’s interpretation of Innis’ The Bias of Communication. That 1951 publication foresaw the technological advances changed communication with mass audiences.

Media bias is an incomplete or prejudiced news story, according to attorney Dugger on Study.com. Media bias refers to “A prejudice or leaning that may aim to influence judgments in an unfair manner; slant; prejudice” in the mass media, which includes “any medium of concentration through which information is disseminated to large numbers of people”, according to Isadora and Flynn’s interpretation in the Salem Press Encyclopedia of “Media bias: An overview” (2013, Great Neck Publishing).

According to Dugger, forms of media bias include:

  • Omission. This is the quintessential one-sided story that ignores both viewpoints on issues. As Dugger noted, Fox News has a reputation for its conservative slant on reporting, where CNN has long been accused of having a liberal slant.
  • Source selection. During my print journalism days, I often felt challenged to report stories from the perspective of only people I knew. Granted, it was a small S.C. community in the country next to the state capital, but I lacked Internet access in those days to find people I didn’t know in order to expand the reach of my reporting. Often, lazy reporters make broad generalizations justified by “experts believe”.
  • Story selection. Some stories get more press than others; ask anyone who doesn’t support Donald Trump for president.
  • Placement bias. This is the above-the-fold dilemma that even digital writers now face. It’s a long-held perception that newspaper stories at the top of the page, or news articles at the top of the scroll bar receive more attention than those at the bottom. There’s a certain truth to that adage, but I think modern readers and users don’t mind expanding to full-width. Even digital publishers can place similar ads next to stories about the same topic. For example, women might be more likely to click on digital ad for a Mary Kay face cream placed next to a story reporting the results of the aging process.
  • Bias by labeling. Redstate.com blogger Mandaville listed some examples of this bias designed to advance or deride certain people or sources with nonobjective identifiers including “so-called”, labels displayed in quotation marks that might to imply the reverse, “the very liberal/conservative senator…”, and other opinionated descriptive phrases.
  • Spin. Although I received a substantial discount to the cover price, I canceled my subscription to Time magazine because a story about now convicted VA governor Bob McDonnell didn’t mention what I thought were pertinent facts about his case. Years before, I canceled my subscription to Newsweek after the publication lied more than twice when denying that its columnist Joe Klein wrote the book Primary Colors.

Add to that list gender bias. A timely subject is the upcoming 2016 presidential election with a broad array of Democratic and Republican candidates including two women on each side of the political fence. Ondercin summarized the findings of Falk’s 2008 book that “finds considerable evidence that both sexism and gender stereotypes have shaped the media’s coverage of women candidates in the past as well as the present.”

Media bias may not always be a bad thing, according to the American Press Institute. Some forms of bias, intentional or otherwise:

  • Give marginalized audiences a voice. One of my favorite examples is Ted Williams, the man with the golden voice, whom a television reporter found homeless on a street corner, recorded in a viral video, and literally helped him turn his life around for the better.

  • Giving spokespeople more air time. These people make their living by providing media commentary designed to put their government agencies and organizations in the best light possible, and reporters have an obligation to pursue the other side of that story.
  • Abiding by wishes of “unnamed sources”. One of the most well-known cases here is Watergate. My collegiate idol was Woodward, who with fellow Washington Post reporter Bernstein, blew the lid off a government conspiracy and forced the only presidential resignation by verifying facts shared by anonymous source who in 2006 self-disclosed as former deputy FBI director Mark Felt.
  • Reporting only the interesting stories. “Consumers value content that matches their opinion” wrote Zhu and Dukes (2015), and that might help explain the results of a Pew Research Center report (2013) explaining why media firms have expanded opinion-based programming.
  • Writing about stories the boss wants. The Today Show is owned by NBC Universal. If you want to learn more about exactly why anchor reporter Ann Curry was phased out of her job in 2012, you should consult other news sources instead.

It may not be possible to eliminate bias in modern media. Imagine the impact if mass media journalists and digital reporters were required to disclose their research methods  and communications biases in a similar manner as scholarly authors and academic researchers.

–Kris Spadaccia

(These opinions reflect only those of the author.)

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