Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias, Part 1
Americans spanning the political spectrum share battle cries about media bias, but what is it, and why does it exist?
It’s not unusual today to hear complaints about mainstream media. “Fake news,” “media bias,” and “partisan journalism” have become part of the lexicon of public discourse, and are common battle cries from both the left and the right. This article focuses on media bias–articles addressing fake news and partisanship will follow in the near future.
Bias is Human
Bias is inherently human, and all people are biased in some way. Quite simply, this means that everyone has foundational views and perspectives that make up their core beliefs and personal world-views. These are one’s most strongly held convictions, and they are developed primarily through upbringing and personal experiences.
Bias mostly takes place on a subconscious level.
Biased perspectives often persist even in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary of a given position. This is due, in large part, to how people deal with cognitive dissonance, a state of psychological discomfort experienced when convictions are challenged by contradictory facts or information.
People dislike cognitive dissonance and actively work to reduce it, even if that reduction — like the bias itself — sometimes takes place on a subconscious level. This typically results in people favoring evidence that supports their worldview while dismissing evidence that disputes it.
The perspective or worldview a person holds largely dictates how they prioritize or respond to political and social issues. Personal beliefs and experiences inevitably affect political ideology and identity, generalizations, stereotyping and other bias-based beliefs. This is true for all people, including journalists, editors and leaders of news organizations.
When writing and publishing news, journalists and editors must make decisions as to which stories should be written and published, and they base these decisions on their perceptions about a story’s newsworthiness. This is known as “gatekeeping” or “selection bias,” and it is an early opportunity for the introduction of bias into the process of content creation. When stories are selected and published in ways that further a particular point of view, you have what is known as “agenda setting.”
News media set the agenda for their audience with the stories they select, the placement of those stories in relation to other pieces, and how the stories are written. Journalists and editors can do this by choosing to tell stories favoring one side over the other — completely ignoring opposing positions — or they can choose to tell both sides, but feature one side prominently while opposing sides are buried between stories they deem more important.
Once a story is selected, journalists must choose a finite number of facts to present. The reality is that no one person could read every fact related to a particular story, let alone report all of them. Choices must be made, and once again, journalists and editors make these determinations based on what they consider important or newsworthy. This is known as “presentation bias.”
News staff can attempt to include facts that present a balanced, two-sided account of a story, or they can focus on one side over the other. Neither selection nor presentation bias need be partisan, but they certainly can be.
US Media Bias
Media bias, as the name implies, relates to the spill-over of personal or organizational bias into published news. Quite often in U.S. media, this results in one-sided reporting or reporting that is partial to or prejudiced against one side. As will be discussed in future articles, bias in U.S. media owes largely to over-consolidation of the news industry and its corporate ownership.
Also contributing significantly to media bias in the U.S. is the underrepresentation of minorities of all ethnicities, genders and religions within the industry, as well as too little diversity in thought. Since expecting writers, editors and news leaders to set aside their world-views is unrealistic and virtually impossible, balancing the scales by giving voice to a broader array of minorities and perspectives is the most plausible solution.