Oct 29, 2005

On Media Bias, Real and Perceived


When people look for bias in a given media source, they will likely find it. It might not occur in every story, but it can be found in almost every organization.

However: does this perception of bias take away from what the writer was trying to communicate? Does the writer get the information across? Is the perceived bias central to the story, or does it provide just provide a sort of editorial shading?

The problem arises - and I know this is a grey area - when people deliberately inject their politics into the news, or - worse - whore themselves out to a party as a journalist-mole. It happens a lot more frequently in places like DC than happy little Toledo, but there are journalists on both sides of the fence whose loyalties lie with political parties instead of truth.

It is unreasonable for people to assume that journalists can be mindless automatons and divorce themselves from their political views. However, journalists have an obligation to be fair, and to present both sides of an argument. They also have an obligation to disclose any connection to the story, or - better yet - pass on a story to which they are too close.

As a writer I have been accused of being everything from a communist to a right-wing shill, sometimes by different critics on the same piece. I pride myself on my objectivity, but there will be times where my politics peek through.

The litmus test is not the politics of the writer, but the ability of the writer to communicate the truth with a minimum of bias. I surf the Web, radio programs, and news shows to get a variety of information; when, for example, FOX or NPR gets blatantly political and irritates me, I change the channel. I know going in that a given media source might cross that line, and I move on when the given media source fails to deliver what I am seeking.

(Uh-oh; I just used the term "move on;" could this be a subtle hint of bias?)

As an example, let's consider the neo Nazi group NSM, which I have spent a lot of time over the last 2 weeks covering on this blog and in several periodicals. I could have had fun and made the members look like idiots (not very hard, given their penchant for wearing retro Nazi clothing), but for the most part on this blog I played it straight; I was especially conscious of keeping my bias against neo-Nazi politics out of articles that I wrote for the Toledo Free Press and Clamor. Now, if you look hard enough, you can probably find a few places on my blog where I let a little anti-Nazi commentary sneak through, but I think that I treated them fairly overall.

That being said, some have criticized me (especially my this blog) for having a bias toward covering the protesters, and this is evidence that I am some kind of closet propagandist (this quote from "Dick" in Toledo yesterday):

Why are you such an apoligetic [sic] for these people whom caused such destruction and mayhem?

I have tried to find things to write about that the mainstream media skipped. Is this, then, evidence of a "liberal" bias, or am I just looking for different angle? Writers who stray away from the mainstream often get accused of having bias simply because they cover unusual stories.

Now, this is not an apology for egregious example of bias, like Condoleeza Rice being photo-edited to look sort of demonic. Bust them for it where you see it, but remember that sometimes people are just lazy. Perhaps in the above case someone was trying to compensate for a crappy photo by enhancing the contrast or coloring.

The media coverage on Cindy Sheehan, in my opinion, has been vicious and quite biased toward the right. Set aside for a moment your feelings and opinions about her and do a Google News search. Do you think there is a "liberal" bias, or are the right-wingers who demonize her winning out?

Here is a sampling of some of the most inflammatory headlines (taken from the first page of listings in the Google News search):

*"Cindy Sheehan Indulges in Happy Fantasies of Perpetual Safety"
*"Military Families 'Disgusted' by Sheehan"
*"Cindy Sheehan's Latest Publicity Stunt at White House Denounced by ... "
*"Ugh! Not Another Cindy Sheehan Article"

Granted, Cindy Sheehan tends to bring out a special kind of anger, but do you think there is a friendly bias in the news toward her?

(Note: I am throwing this out for discussion, and am not endorsing Ms. Sheehan, or offering any opinion on her mission. However, I recently interviewed her, and found her to be much different from the way she is painted in the mainstream media)

By the way - note the fifth paragraph of this post - I put the word "communist" first; now does this mean that I politically lean to the left, that I consciously tried to be objective by ackowledging a bias, or that I am a rightist because I named "communist" first?

That could be interpreted in a lot of ways, but I'll let you in on a little secret - I have an obsession with alphabetization, and "C" just has to come before "R" in my twisted mind.

It comes down to the finished product - if a journalist does sloppy work, or their work is blatantly lopsided in favor of a particular view, then that journalist should face public scrutiny.

I have friends in the media on both sides of the political aisle, and they are dedicated to the one end that really matters: truth.

Sometimes perceived bias can be attributed to laziness; it is easy to repeat the same things that you hear from other media, or to parrot the crap that gets sent out in press releases.

Personally, if I am covering a press conference, I would rather interview the person sweeping up the room afterwards than the talking heads at the microphones. Sometimes you get better information in unlikely places.

Finally, a quote from someone whose prose will always humble me:

The only thing I ever saw that came close to "objective journalism" was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. I always admired that machine, but I noticed that nobody paid any attention to it until one of those known, heavy, out-front shoplifters came into the place... but when that happened, everybody got so excited that the thief had to do something quick, like buy a green popsicle or a can of Coors and get out of the place immediately.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

This essay is an outgrowth of a conversation on Toledo Talk, the Glass City's most plugged-in and feistiest blog. If you don't regularly visit the site, you miss out on excellent discussions of local, national, and international news, plus great lines like the one that BrianinFlorida dished out toward a local politician recently: "worthless braintard."


Lisa Renee said...

My take on the medi bias is this: Everyone has a natural bias. It is human nature to want everyone to agree with your point of view. In the media the editors, owners, etc., could have their own bias, the journalist their own bias. Then the readers? They have their own natural biases too. So many times people jump on one tiny little sentence or phrase to focus on rather than taking the piece in total.

All of us are at times conservative, liberal, green, libertarian and the rest yet it is what we are most often we select as a label. Even though I participate in the labeling for conversation purposes, there is no perfect conservative, there is no perfect liberal. We are all individuals with different backgrounds, experiences which we bring to any discussion that has helped us form our beliefs.

Hence to me this whole belief in media bias that Spiro Agnew cleverly created? Still is being used for the same reasons, to downplay something to make it appear as it is biased therefore not worthy of serious consideration. If the focus was made on reality, which is there is always going to be some natural bias that as always the solution is.

"Consider the Source"....

historymike said...

Thanks for weighing in, Lisa.

I am both amused and irritated by people on both sides of the aisle who rant about a particular "bias," but are strangely silent when it is committed by their side.

Lately the so-called "liberal" bias in media and academia has been getting a lot of press, but the phenomenon happens by all sorts of ideologues.

My politics have shifted over time, and I have streaks of libertarianism, environmentalism, socialism, and centrism (among other "isms") that run throughout my philosophies of life and politics.

The most consistent "ism" that I exhibit is most likely populism; not the flag-waving sort of nationalist populism, but the grass-roots common man populism exhibited most eloquently by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, when he advocated "... government of the people, by the people, for the people."

IsisDC said...

That is why you are my hero..:-)

liberal_dem said...

What is most apparent to me is the right-wing slanted 'news' of those who 'whore themselves out to a party as a journalist-mole.' Take Bob Frantz of WSPD for example. His morning program is called, "The Morning News with Bob Frantz." News? No, the program is not 'news.' Rather it is right-wing opinion and pander.

Sadly, this slant appeals greatly to the less-educated group in our society as well as the macho male [often in the former category.] They thrive on the right-wing, subtle racist arguments pandered by the slick talkers on the radio.

One can see this quite clearly in the Carty-Ford contest for mayor. Drive through any red-neck neighborhood in Toledo and note the Carty signs. Carty is an opportunist and has appealed well to this group of voters.

We all know that Carty is a closet Republican who 'plays' the role of 'endorsed Democrat' to the hilt. The black folks of Toledo easily see the phoniness in him. Yet the white, high school-educated voter sees 'their' kind of candidate in Carty. Racism is overt.

So then, to conclude, I worry most about the real bias spewing forth 24/7 on right-wing radio, propagandizing the less-well educated citizens of America. Goebels would have been proud to see just how well propaganda can be spread through the airways of a nation.

Lisa Renee said...

Yeah liberal_dem, the left does not do the same? Please, bias on both sides is prevalent and to try to claim that those that listen to right wing radio are some how less than educated and racist is bs.

So you don't like Carty, that's fine but I hate to tell ya that not all blacks hate Carty or embrace Jack Ford. The African-American Parents Association endorsed Carty...

I realize you have your own beliefs and are entitled to them but I disagree with the way you are doing exactly what you state "they" are doing. Presenting a heck of a lot of bias that is not based on total fact.

That's what I worry most about, that too many people believe what is handed to them by both sides rather than realize the truth usually lies in the middle. Either extreme, left or right is not something that should be promoted.

M A F said...

I was going to post some gratuitous compliments but was worried that I would be guilty of showing my bias to your writing.

I would be interested in your views as it pertains to the readers bias which you briefly touched upon in your remarks of being labeled both communist and Republican in response to one particular article.

liberal_dem said...

"...and to try to claim that those that listen to right wing radio are some how less than educated and racist is bs."

Really? Gosh, could have fooled me.

Anonymous said...

This is the most intelligent and rational articles I have ever read on the subject. You should send this to a national magazine.

Hooda Thunkit said...

From my point of view.

Let me repeat that key phrase, from my point of view...

Everybody has a point of view, and none of us is in the exact center, politically speaking, therefore everyone has a bias.

liberal_dem swears that Bob Frantz is a right wing so and so, while I think that he is slightly right of that mythical center.

Who's right? We both are, from our own unique point of view.

Three very lonely “political” places are:
The exact center,
The very most extreme far right, and
The very most extreme far left.

Most all of us reside between the right and left extremes and somewhere near the middle, but not in the exact center.

The exact center is a very lonely place surrounded by the majority of humanity, with a few others out towards the extremes.

So, literally everyone perceives a bias in most anything that anyone else reports, writes, or says.

The trick is to recognize your own individual biases and examine others from your own admittedly biased point of view.