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Understanding 'Media Bias'

by Sean Gonsalves

You hear it all the time, especially during election season. "The media is biased" -- a criticism leveled from both the Right and Left.

In fact, there's a cottage industry devoted to "exposing media bias," most of which has people in the news biz rolling their eyes. And for good reason: not that media criticism is unwarranted, it's just that most of it, to put it bluntly, is oversimplified nonsense that generates more heat than light.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of pop media criticism is its lack of clarity. People talk about the media as if it were a single entity.

"The media"? Are we talking about the broadcast or print media? Are we talking about the "Colbert Report," PBS, NPR, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal or the Cape Cod Times. Are we talking about reporters, editors, publishers, radio talk-show hosts, columnists, bloggers or TV pundits?

As Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote in a recent issue of American Journalism Review, "critics often blame 'the media,' as if the sins of some are the sins of all. It's not just a bland, inexact generalization; it's a slur. The media are, of course, made up of numerous parts, many of which bear little relation to each other. Critics need to define their terms. Holding 'the media' responsible for some perceived slight is like blaming an entire ethnic or racial group for the actions of a few of its members."

Still, surveys show ever-increasing public skepticism about the traditional news media. According to survey data cited by media scholar S. Robert Lichter, two-thirds of the public thought the press was "fair" in a 1937 survey but by 1984 polls it dropped to 38 percent, while only 29 percent said the same about TV news.

Adding insult to injury, a national survey conducted by Sacred Heart University in January found that only 19.6 percent of respondents said they believed "all or most" reporting, while a larger percentage (23.9 percent) said they believed "little" or none of it. Next stop: zero credibility.

These survey results should be taken with a grain of salt, in part because, news consumers tend to overstate how closely they pay attention to news, as the Sacred Heart study indicates.

For example, the survey found that Americans described the New York Times and NPR as "mostly or somewhat liberal" -- about four times more often than they described those two outlets as "mostly or somewhat conservative."

"Leave aside the blunt generality inherent in this. (Is all of NPR -- from "Morning Edition" to "Car Talk" -- "mostly or somewhat liberal?") The more important (and unasked) question about this finding is its shaky foundation. Given that only small fractions of the populace read the Times or listen to NPR on a regular basis, how is it that so many Americans seem to know so much about the political leanings of the Times and NPR?" Farhi asks.

Part of this disconnect stems from the lack of actual content analysis among the general public and an over-reliance on anecdotal examples.

Take this year's primary campaign season, for example. Depending on which candidate you supported in the primaries, the universal claim is that the media was biased for/against Clinton or Obama. Yet, a study of the A sections of three agenda-setting newspapers (the Washington Post, NY Times and L.A. Times) done by researchers at Bowling Green State University paints a more nuanced portrait.

The study found Clinton and Obama received about the same number of "positive" and "negative" headlines from those papers (from Labor Day through the Super Tuesday primaries in early February). About 35 percent of the headlines for Obama were positive and 27 percent were negative. Clinton received 31 percent positive and 31 percent negative. The rest of stories were considered to be either mixed (with positive and negative elements) or neutral.

So what's the deal? Is the entire news biz soooo biased that it warrants such a profound sense of distrust among the public?

My own biased answer is: of course, there are media biases, most of which are on the institutional level; shaping the way news is gathered and delivered, regardless of individual preferences. But, the "media bias" news consumers decry doesn't manifest itself in the way most people think, especially as conceived by those who think the media is "liberal."

That's going to sound "liberally biased" to Limbaugh and O'Reilly fans but it's a bias shared by former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan.

"To this day, I'm often asked about the 'liberal media' critique," he writes in his new memoir. "My answer is always the same. It's probably true that most (journalists) are personally liberal or leftward leaning and tend to vote Democratic. But this tilt to the left has probably become less pronounced in recent years."

I would say that's an understatement.

"Everything I've seen as a White House press secretary and longtime observer of the political scene...suggests that any liberal bias actually has minimal impact on the way the American public is informed. We in the Bush administration had no difficulty in getting our messages out. If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House," McClellan observes.

The run-up to the invasion of Iraq is the most obvious example. McClellan argues that the press were asking the wrong questions, focusing on the "march to war," instead of whether war was necessary. When it comes to Iraq, he writes, "the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

For those of us who saw the invasion of Iraq as a war of choice and not necessity from day one, McClellan's observation is, by now, a truism. But what is interesting about his conservative view is that he takes it one step further.

"I'm inclined to believe that a liberal-oriented media in the United States should be viewed as a good thing," especially considering that the last several presidential administrations and the bulk of Congress have been "a succession of conservative/centrist leaders, either right of center or just left of center, who pursued mainstream policies designed to satisfy the vast bulk of middle-class American voters."

"Over the past forty years, there have been no flaming liberals in positions of greatest power in American politics. Under these circumstances, a generally liberal or left-leaning media can serve an important, useful role. It can stand up for the interests of people and causes that get short shrift from conservative and mainstream politicians."

Tell your right wing friends to put that in their Limbaugh pipe and smoke it.

Moving beyond the oversimplified and misleading debate about liberal/conservative media, there's a deeper problem to consider.

These seemingly intractable, polarized, news-views show no sign of abating. In fact, there's every reason to expect it to get worse. With the internet and the ability of news consumers to pick and choose what news they want to engage, I wonder how America will ever have a meaningful conversation about any national issue when we're all living in our own individual media bubbles, clinging to news that affirms our individual world view while rejecting any information that doesn't fit neatly into our political philosophy as worthlessly "biased."

That doesn't facilitate conversation. It encourages us to continue shouting past each other.

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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