Bias in the Media

March 26, 2014

Real Journalists Don’t Take Sides

James O’Shea

Partisan news is like junk food. It may taste good but it’s bad for you.

Partisan news litters the journalistic landscape. If you’re a Republican, turn to Fox News for the right spin. A Democrat? Dial up MSNBC. For a broader menu of news to reinforce your biases, try the Internet.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll also find non-partisan journalism that gives readers balance and context, qualities often lost in a world of warp speed information and instant gratification.

Non-partisan evidence is the news that I value – solid information, the kind everyone needs to make smart decisions in a democracy. More than ever, Americans need news from reliable sources that verify first and write later.

I’m not naïve. Bias infects all news. Any journalist who says he or she is free of partisan leanings is a liar or a fool. Every reporter has a bias fueled by factors like age, economic status, education, parentage, heritage or class.

But real journalists set aside their biases when working a news story. They seek countervailing views and facts, things that good editors demand. Indeed, journalists who provide comprehensive, intelligent news coverage add context that injects meaning into an issue of personal or collective importance. And they reap the only reward journalists covet – great play, a prominent spot on the page or newscast.

I’m not saying partisan reporting never serves the public interest. Partisan journalists can spotlight worthy news or points of view dismissed, rejected or overlooked by conventional journalists.

More often than not though, partisan newsmakers substitute agenda for accuracy. They want to incite, not inform. One can’t rely on the incomplete information they provide to make a smart decision. The journalists’ “get it right” gene simply isn’t in their DNA.

Nowhere was the deleterious effect of partisan news coverage more evident than in Barrack Obama’s march to the White House.

Besides being the first African American president, one might say Obama became the first Internet president.

Obama embraced the medium. His staff became adroit at using online media to bypass skeptical established journalists and take his message directly to the public. That’s partisan “news” with a capital P.

But the Internet also subjected Obama to news values diluted by a mixture of bloggers, activists and journalists that began to challenge traditional news standards just as he embarked on his campaign. Partisan “news” flooded the Internet during the primary and general elections, mostly to ill effect.

Exhibit A occurred when Insight, a magazine published by the conservative Washington Times, reported that Obama had attended a “madrassa” when living in Indonesia as a child. The report went viral on the Internet since the public often equated Islamic madrassas, or schools attached to a mosque, with Islamic radicalism. Fox News and other right leaning media repeated the report. The only problem: They didn’t “get it right.”

Obama’s opponent in the last election, Mitt Romney, suffered partisan attacks too. Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama political action committee, suggested a steelworker’s wife died after he lost his health insurance when Bain Capital, a venture capital firm led by Romney, acquired his employer and gutted employee benefits.

The partisan reports, repeated on talk radio and cable TV flooded the Internet, hurting both candidates. But the real loser was the public, which was left with incomplete and confusing news reports.

Obama attended a secular Muslim school as a child in Indonesia, one that was not attached to a mosque and had Christian students as well as Muslims. It was no hotbed of Islamic jihad.

The wife of the steelworker at the company acquired by Romney’s firm died five years after he lost his job. Any decent reporter would have included these facts, assuming he or she would have written the story at all.

The nation’s founding fathers practiced partisan journalism when they rebelled against the British. Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots believed that the “common man” – and not some king or earl – could best govern himself.

Although the rebels differed on the attributes of the “common man,” they knew that he needed good, reliable information to make the right decision. So when they wrote the rules for the America of their dreams, they drafted a First Amendment to the Constitution designed to make the press free.

I believe that the best source for that reliable information comes from non-partisan journalists, ones that report and don’t simply repeat.

James O’Shea is the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan. A former editor of the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, he is the author of three books.


Oh ye, of Little Readership Faith

Melanie Kruvelis

“This editorial is totally biased.”

So deemed one anonymous commenter on The Michigan Daily’s website. Back when I was co- running the Daily’s editorial page, it was my job to keep an eye on the steady flood of angry comments and e-mails. And when the comments weren’t disgustingly offensive, they’d be slamming us for content that was, to paraphrase one pissed-off Hotmailer, totally biased.

Those e-mails always pop in to my head whenever I hear complaints over American media being pushed to its poles. Of course, those who bemoan the polarization of the media aren’t really talking about op-eds. Instead, they’re talking about bias — an inkling of a particular leaning — infiltrating the news. Because with the rise of 15,000 cable channels and the Internet anyone can present the news with their own spin. And they can present it as fact.

Of course, there is some cause for concern. The inherent biases of polarized media can give viewers the impression that the economic crisis of 2008 was the fault of either the Democrats or Republicans but not both, and who cares about unsustainable mortgage lending anyways?

But here’s the thing: When people talk about the dangers of polarized media, they’re putting all of their faith in the invincible persuasive powers of cable news and next to none in the curiosity, the skepticism, and the intelligence of the viewer.

Why has the New York Times printed an opinion page for more than a century? Sure, maybe it’s for the benefit of papier-mâché artists, but more likely it’s because an opinion page can catch people up on the news stories they’ve pretended to follow and gives them an understanding of why they matter. And so what if the spin you’re presented with doesn’t jive with you? From the first time we’re introduced to the five-paragraph essay, we’re told to always include the counterpoint. And with the help of editorials, we can.

The same goes for MSNBC, FOX and whatever news network Herman Cain has created by the time this goes to print. The assumption that these opinionated networks only steer the country off the cliff of political moderation is a little overstated.

First, let’s consider this: Is “Fox & Friends”/”Hardball” to blame for rising partisan politics? To answer your aunt’s Facebook question, no, not so much. Last year, Markus Prior, a political science professor at Princeton, examined the relationship between a rise of partisan programming and a rise of partisan politicking.

So did Elisabeth Hasselbeck cause the rise of the Tea Party?

In short, no. Prior’s study found that viewers of PNN — partisan news networks — don’t stick around for long. “The share of Americans who watch cable news at a rate of 10 minutes or more per day is probably no larger than 10-15 percent of the voting age population,” Prior reported. And an unsustainable audience is unlikely to tip America’s political scales to any one side.

Moreover, Prior found that these polarized channels didn’t really bring those in the middle out to FringeLand. “Research to date does not offer compelling evidence that partisan media have made Americans more partisan,” Prior writes. “…most voters avoid partisan media altogether or mix and match across ideological lines.” If anything, he found, partisan media draws in those who already strongly identify with whatever leaning they glean from the network.

But isn’t that dangerous? After all, none of this polarized nonsense would have ever reached Cronkite’s teleprompter back in the golden era of news.

Sure, none of this would’ve happened in a world with three news channels. It couldn’t have happened. One of the great things about living in a blogospherical planet is the opportunity to find an unfathomable number of perspectives in an instant. Instead of one white guy telling us what he thinks we need to know, we can learn and decide our own take based off of the billions of voices swimming around. So if an O’Reilly clip pisses you off, open three tabs from Bitch Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Buzzfeed, and bounce your ideas off a feminist, a centrist, and a corgi stuck in a cereal bowl.

We all have our own spins — your nugget of truth is another’s biased bologna. And media’s no exception. But instead of decrying the supposed decay of media, remember that unlike those in the Sedition Act-era, we have infinite space to disagree. Call it a gift from the MisInformation Age.

Melanie Kruvelis is a senior at the University of Michigan studying Political Science. A recovering editorial page editor for The Michigan Daily, she now works for Michigan Radio. In her spare time, she enjoys contemplating why she started writing a thesis and pizza. Her favorite news source is The Michigan Review.