My Take: Is The Media Biased?

When people find out that I’m a former journalist, they regularly want to know whether I think the media is biased (they presumably ask the question because they believe the media are biased).

The answer isn’t as straightforward as they think. In this article, I’ll share my thoughts on this question – and I invite you to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

I usually answer the “Is the media biased?” question with a three-part, “yes, but” answer.

Many people believe the media have a left-wing bias. Are they right?

1. Yes, There’s a Left-Leaning Bias: Numerous surveys over the past decade have found an undeniable left-leaning bias in the mainstream media.

In my experience working in newsrooms at ABC News and CNN, I’ve observed few journalists purposely injecting their personal political biases into their reporting. Their biases work in more subtle (and often unconscious) ways, helping to guide their decisions regarding which stories to cover and which “experts” to believe. The environmental whistleblower, for example, will usually be regarded more credibly than the corporate CEO.

In recent years, the right-wing media have gained significant traction. Bias is no longer the sole province of left-leaning news organizations.

2. That Bias Is Over-Stated For Political Purposes

In basketball, there’s an expression called “working the ref.” When the referee calls a foul on a player, the player protests the call – even if it’s pretty clear it was a foul. The player lodges the complaint in the hopes that the referee will think a little bit harder before calling a similar foul later in the game.

Conservatives have worked the media “ref” for years; by doing so, they have made mainstream newsrooms more sensitive to potential allegations of bias. (To be clear, conservatives have lodged some very legitimate complaints against mainstream coverage – their complaints often go beyond merely working the ref.)

But I often find that complaints of bias are more reflexive than substantive. For example, Newt Gingrich is now facing tough media scrutiny regarding millions of dollars of paid consulting fees from unpopular government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac. What he dismisses as a story driven by media bias is actually a fair and accurate story worth reporting. Nonetheless, he’ll “work the ref” and blame the media for running the story, possibly blunting the story’s impact with his supporters.

3. The Primary Media Bias Is Not Ideological

I’ve long thought that the dominant media bias is not ideological, but toward local, inexpensive, tawdry, and visually compelling stories.

As examples:

  • There are two stories of equal news value. One is in New York City; the other is in Lincoln, Nebraska. National news organizations will more likely cover the NYC story, since they have news bureaus and dozens of reporters standing by in Manhattan, whereas sending a crew to Lincoln would require additional time and money.
  • There are two political scandals of equal significance. One involves a detailed financial scandal that is difficult to understand; the other involves a sex scandal. National news organizations will likely give disproportionate coverage to the sex scandal, as the visuals are better and the tawdry nature of the story is more likely to attract an audience.

As a media trainer, I often tell our clients that while all of the above might be true, it shouldn’t prevent spokespersons from being able to accomplish their media goals. We can’t change the biases that drive the media – but by understanding them and using that knowledge to influence your media strategies, you can usually overcome them.

Do you agree or disagree with my conclusions? Please leave a comment below.