By Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.
There is no such thing as an objective point of view.
No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated historically, politically, economically, and socially. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the collective influences of the entire context of a message.
Politicians are certainly biased (because they are human) and often engage in overt propaganda. They belong to parties and espouse policies and ideologies. And while they may think their individual ideologies are simply common sense, they understand that they speak from political positions.
Journalists, too, speak from political positions but usually not overtly so. The journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are strong influences on the profession. But journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy. Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: 1) fairness to those concerned with the news and 2) a professional process of information gathering and verification that seeks completeness, and accuracy. As we all know, the ethical heights journalists set for themselves are not always reached. But, all in all, like politics, it is an honorable profession practiced, for the most part, by people trying to do the right thing.
The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.
I think citizens must develop the skill of detecting bias and propaganda. Remember: Bias does not suggest that a message is false or unfair.
Critical questions for detecting bias
- What is the author’s / speaker’s socio-political position? With what social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?
- Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the message?
- Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? What is the bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?
- What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the data, and are the data being presented fully?
- How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting arguments?
- If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views characterized? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?
Bias in the news media
Is the news media biased toward liberals? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence–anecdotal and otherwise–to “prove” media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural, biases of journalism as a professional practice–especially as mediated through television. I use the word “bias” here to challenge its current use by partisan critics. A more accepted, and perhaps more accurate, term would be “frame.” These are some of the professional frames that structure what journalists can see and how they can present what they see.
- Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses. As such, they must deliver a good product to their customers to make a profit. The customers of the news media have largely been advertisers heretofore. The most important product the news media delivers to its customers are readers or viewers. Good is defined in numbers and quality of readers or viewers. The news media are biased toward conflict (re: bad news and narrative biases below) because conflict draws readers and viewers. Harmony is boring.
- Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate. News is what’s new and fresh. To be immediate and fresh, the news must be ever-changing even when there is little news to cover.
- Visual bias: Television (and, increasingly, newspapers) is biased toward visual depictions of news. Television is nothing without pictures. Legitimate news that has no visual angle is likely to get little attention. Much of what is important in civic affairs–policy–cannot be photographed.
- Bad news bias: Good news is boring (and probably does not photograph well, either). This bias makes the world look like a more dangerous place than it really is. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far more crooked than they really are.
- Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of “stories” that must have a beginning, middle, and end–in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives–set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.
- Status Quo bias: The news media believe “the system works.” During the “fiasco in Florida,” recall that the news media were compelled to remind us that the Constitution was safe, the process was working, and all would be well. The mainstream news media never question the structure of the political system. The American way is the only way, politically and socially. In fact, the American way is news. The press spends vast amounts of time in unquestioning coverage of the process of political campaigns (but less so on the process of governance). This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored.
- Fairness bias: No, this is not an oxymoron. Ethical journalistic practice demands that reporters and editors be fair. In the news product this bias manifests as a contention between/among political actors (also re: narrative bias above). Whenever one faction or politician does something or says something newsworthy, the press is compelled by this bias to get a reaction from an opposing camp. This creates the illusion that the game of politics is always contentious and never cooperative. This bias can also create situations in which one faction appears to be attacked by the press. For example, politician A announces some positive accomplishment followed by the press seeking a negative comment from politician B. The point is not to disparage politician A but to be fair to politician B. When politician A is a conservative, this practice appears to be liberal bias (and vice versa).
- Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time. News organizations compete for market share and reader/viewer attention. And the 24-hour news cycle–driven by the immediacy of television and the internet/social media–creates a situation in which the job of competing never comes to a rest. Add financial pressures to this mix–the general desire of media groups for profit margins that exceed what’s “normal” in many other industries–and you create a bias toward information that can be obtained quickly, easily, and inexpensively. Need an expert/official quote (status quo bias) to balance (fairness bias) a story (narrative bias)? Who can you get on the phone fast? Who is always ready with a quote and always willing to speak (i.e. say what you need them to say to balance the story)? Who sent a press release recently? Much of deadline decision making comes down to gathering information that is readily available from sources that are well known.
- Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often assert themselves into the stories they cover. This happens most often in terms of proximity, i.e. to the locus of unfolding events or within the orbit of powerful political and civic actors. This bias helps journalists establish and maintain a cultural identity as knowledgeable insiders (although many journalists reject the notion that follows from this–that they are players in the game and not merely observers). The glory bias shows itself in particularly obnoxious ways in television journalism. News promos with stirring music and heroic pictures of individual reporters create the aura of omnipresence and omnipotence. I ascribe the use of the satellite phone to this bias. Note how often it’s used in situations in which a normal video feed should be no problem to establish, e.g. a report from Tokyo I saw on CNN. The jerky pictures and fuzzy sound of the satellite phone create a romantic image of foreign adventure.
- Middle class bias: Journalists today are college-educated professionals. That wasn’t always the case. Through the Progressive Era and into the early part of the 20th century, journalism was a working-class job that required nothing more than a high school education and a willingness to learn on the job as an apprentice. Today, a journalist’s job pays a middle class salary and, in some cases, can pay enough to launch the journalist into the ranks of the rich. What this means: Journalists are middle-class professionals with middle-class lifestyles and middle-class cultural, economic, and political concerns. They tend to see the world through a middle-class lens. The poor and working class, for example, often become mere objects of reporting rather than citizens whose concerns need coverage. The rich are often treated this way, too.
Structural Bias as Theory
Some critics of the press think of it as speaking with a unified voice with a distinct ideological bias. This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. For that better understanding we need a theory.
A theory offers us a model that tells us why things happen as they do. Further, a theory allows us to predict outcomes and behavior. Assertions of ideological bias do neither. While we can expect the press to demonstrate ideological biases in regard to certain issues or other localized phenomena, these and other behaviors are explained and predicted by the structural biases. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a conservative bias, asserting that the press is liberal neither predicts nor explains. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a liberal bias, asserting that the press is conservative neither predicts nor explains.
Test this for yourself. Choose a situation that is current–preferably breaking right now. For each of the structural biases listed above, write down what you would expect the press to do based on that bias. Then, complete the exercise with a concluding statement that takes into account as many of the structural biases as possible. Now, follow the situation for a few days and note how the press behaves. I think you will find that you have successfully predicted press behavior.
News media assumptions about language and discourse
Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. If, as asserted earlier, there is no such thing as an objective point of view, then there cannot be objective or transparent language, i.e. a one-to-one correspondence between reality and words such that I may accurately represent reality so that you experience it as I do. Language mediates our lived experiences. And our evaluation of those experiences are reflected in our language use. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is “never innocent.” By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically. The practice of journalism, however, accepts a very different view of language that creates serious consequences for the news consumer. Most journalists do their jobs with little or no thought given to language theory, i.e. how language works and how humans use language. Most journalists, consciously or not, accept a theory (metaphor) of language as a transparent conduit along which word-ideas are easily sent to a reader or viewer who then experiences reality as portrayed by the words.
From George Lakoff’s Moral Politics (U of Chicago P), journalism falsely asserts that:
- Concepts are literal and nonpartisan: The standard six-question rubric of journalism (who, what, when, where, why, how) cannot capture the complexity of issues as seen through, and expressed by, the incompatible cognitive and/or moral systems.
- Language use is neutral: “Language is associated with a conceptual system. To use the language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system.”
- News can be reported in neutral terms: Not if #2 is correct. To choose a discourse is to choose a position. To attempt neutrality confuses the political concepts. Is it an “inheritance tax” or a “death tax”? What could possibly be a neutral term? To use both in the name of balance is confusing because most news articles don’t have the space, and most TV treatments don’t have the time, to fully explain the terms and why liberals prefer one and conservatives prefer the other. There’s no time or space to explain why this language difference matters (beyond political tactics) to the formation, implementation, and evaluation of policy.
- Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage: Again, see #2.
- All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system: We share the same English language, i.e. its grammar. We often do not share dialects or the denotations and connotations of concepts, lived experience, and ideologies. The statement “I am a patriotic American” means something entirely different to liberals and conservatives. That difference is more than a matter of connotation. The differences in connotation spring from different moral/cognitive constructs. What the conservative means by that statement can appear inaccurate, or even immoral, to the liberal and vice versa.
These false assumptions by journalists, rather than overt politicking, help create the political bias news consumers often detect in news reporting. A conservative will quite naturally assert a conservative world view by using concepts in ways comfortable to conservatives. The same goes for liberals. It is often pointed out that most news reporters are Democrats or vote for Democrats. Party affiliation, however, tells us nothing about political ideology and the moral concepts that undergird it. There are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Be that as it may, the ethics of journalistic practice strongly urge reporters to adopt the assumptions about language listed above and the structural biases listed above. The ethics of journalistic practice encourage journalists to adopt a (nonexistent) neutral language to mitigate any effects of ideological or other bias. There simply is no concerted or sustained effort to slant the news for political purposes by mainstream news outlets.
Anti-bias crusading as an elitist practice
Accuracy in Media claims the news media are biased toward liberal politics. Fairness & Accuracy in Media claims the news media are biased toward conservative politics. Supporters of these views see one group as right and the other as wrong. But the reality is not that simple. Yes, AIM and FAIR each point out coverage that appears to bolster their various claims. At times, the media do seem to be biased one way or the other. What these groups don’t say, however, is that their mistrust of the media is also a mistrust of the people. Those who complain most about media bias would see themselves as able to identify it and resist it. They get upset about it because they question whether the average American is able to do the same. If the average American can identify it and resist it, then there is little need to get upset about bias. The AIM and FAIR web sites are full of material to help hapless Americans avoid the cognitive ravages of the “evil” conservatives or the “slandering” liberals and their media lackeys. I believe the average American is quite capable of identifying problems with news coverage. In my opinion, crusading against political bias in the news media is an elitist practice.