Media / Political Bias
There is no such thing as an objective point of view.
No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context,
through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated
historically, politically, economically, and socially. This state of affairs is
neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the
collective influences of the entire context of a message.
Politicians are certainly biased and overtly so. They belong to parties and
espouse policies and ideologies. And while they may think their individual
ideologies are simply common sense, they understand that they speak from
Journalists, too, speak from political positions but usually not overtly so.
The journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are strong influences on the profession.
But journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy.
Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: 1) fairness to
those concerned with the news and 2) a professional process of information
gathering that seeks fairness, completeness, and accuracy. As we all know, the
ethical heights journalists set for themselves are not always reached. But, all
in all, like politics, it is an honorable profession practiced, for the most
part, by people trying to do the right thing.
The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right
or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of
ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding
of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized
practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting
upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I
say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon
journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure
to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.
For citizens and information consumers (which are one in the same today), it
is important to develop the skill of detecting bias. Remember: Bias does not
suggest that a message is false or unfair. You should apply other techniques in
the Rhetorica Critical Meter to determine if a message is fallacious.
Critical questions for detecting bias
- What is the author's / speaker's socio-political position? With what
social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?
- Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the
- Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? What is the
bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?
- What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the
speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the
data, and are the data being presented fully?
- How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does
it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present
alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting
- If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views
characterized? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe
his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points
of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of
view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?
Bias in the news media
Is the news media biased toward liberals? Yes. Is the news media biased
toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting
because it is possible to find evidence--anecdotal and otherwise--to "prove"
media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is
studying the inherent, or structural, biases of journalism as a professional
practice--especially as mediated through television. I use the word "bias" here
to challenge its current use by partisan critics. A more accepted, and perhaps
more accurate, term would be "frame." These are some of the professional
frames that structure what journalists can see and how they can present what
- Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses. As
such, they must deliver a good product to their customers to make a profit.
The customers of the news media are advertisers. The most important product
the news media delivers to its customers are readers or viewers. Good is
defined in numbers and quality of readers or viewers. The news media are biased toward
conflict (re: bad news and narrative biases below) because conflict draws readers and viewers. Harmony is boring.
- Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate.
News is what's new and fresh. To be immediate and fresh, the news must be
ever-changing even when there is little news to cover.
- Visual bias: Television (and, increasingly, newspapers) is biased
toward visual depictions of news. Television is nothing without
pictures. Legitimate news that has no visual angle is likely to get little
attention. Much of what is important in politics--policy--cannot be
- Bad news bias: Good news is boring (and probably does not
photograph well, either). This bias makes the world look like a more
dangerous place than it really is. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far
more crooked than they really are.
- Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of
"stories" that must have a beginning, middle, and end--in other words, a
plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news
media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these
events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships.
Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to
add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama.
Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in
order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the
authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many
journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives--set story
lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has
been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative
is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing
people and events.
- Status Quo bias: The news media believe "the system works." During
the "fiasco in Florida," recall that the news media were compelled to remind
us that the Constitution was safe, the process was working, and all would be
well. The mainstream news media never question the structure of the
political system. The American way is the only way, politically and socially.
In fact, the American way is news. The press spends vast amounts of time in
unquestioning coverage of the process of political campaigns (but less
so on the process of governance). This bias ensures
that alternate points of view about how government might run and what
government might do are effectively ignored.
- Fairness bias: No, this is not an oxymoron. Ethical journalistic
practice demands that reporters and editors be fair. In the news product this
bias manifests as a contention between/among political actors (also re:
narrative bias above). Whenever one faction or politician does something or
says something newsworthy, the press is compelled by this bias to get a
reaction from an opposing camp. This creates the illusion that the game of
politics is always contentious and never cooperative. This bias can also create situations in which
one faction appears to be attacked by the press. For example, politician A
announces some positive accomplishment followed by the press seeking a
negative comment from politician B. The point is not to disparage politician
A but to be fair to politician B. When politician A is a conservative, this
practice appears to be liberal bias.
- Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven
profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time.
News organizations compete for market share and reader/viewer attention. And
the 24-hour news cycle--driven by the immediacy of television and the
internet--creates a situation in which the job of competing never comes to a
rest. Add financial pressures to this mix--the general desire of media groups
for profit margins that exceed what's "normal" in many other industries--and
you create a bias toward information that can be obtained quickly, easily,
and inexpensively. Need an expert/official quote (status quo bias) to balance
(fairness bias) a story (narrative bias)? Who can you get on the phone fast?
Who is always ready with a quote and always willing to speak (i.e. say what
you need them to say to balance the story)? Who sent a press release
recently? Much of deadline decision making comes down to gathering
information that is readily available from sources that are well known.
- Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often
assert themselves into the stories they cover. This happens most often in
terms of proximity, i.e. to the locus of unfolding events or within the orbit
of powerful political and civic actors. This bias helps journalists establish
and maintain a cultural identity as knowledgeable insiders (although many
journalists reject the notion that follows from this--that they are players
in the game and not merely observers). The glory bias shows itself in
particularly obnoxious ways in television journalism. News promos with
stirring music and heroic pictures of individual reporters create the aura of
omnipresence and omnipotence. I ascribe the use of the satellite phone
to this bias. Note how often it's used in situations in which a normal video
feed should be no problem to establish, e.g. a report from Tokyo I saw
recently on CNN. The jerky pictures and fuzzy sound of the satellite phone
create a romantic image of foreign adventure.
Structural Bias as Theory
I have asserted that some critics of the press think of it as speaking with
a unified voice with a distinct ideological bias. I have further asserted that
this simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly
useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world.
For that better understanding we need a theory.
A theory offers us a model that tells us why things happen as they do. Further,
a theory allows us to predict outcomes and behavior. Assertions of ideological
bias do neither. While we can expect the press to demonstrate ideological
biases in regard to certain issues or other localized phenomena, these and
other behaviors are explained and predicted by the structural biases. Since the
press sometimes demonstrates a conservative bias, asserting that the press is
liberal neither predicts nor explains. Since the press sometimes demonstrates a
liberal bias, asserting that the press is conservative neither predicts nor
Test this for yourself. Choose a situation that is current--preferably breaking
right now. For each of the structural biases listed above, write down what you
would expect the press to do based on that bias. Then, complete the exercise
with a concluding statement that takes into account as many of the structural
biases as possible. Now, follow the situation for a few days and note how the
press behaves. I think you will find that you have successfully predicted press
News media assumptions about language and discourse
Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the
message. If, as asserted earlier, there is no such thing as an objective point of
view, then there cannot be objective or transparent language, i.e. a one-to-one
correspondence between reality and words such that I may accurately
represent reality so that you experience it as I do.
Language mediates our lived experiences. And our evaluation of those
experiences are reflected in our language use. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin
once said that language is "never innocent." By this he meant that language
cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views.
To speak at all is to speak politically. The practice of journalism, however,
accepts a very different view of language that creates serious consequences for
the news consumer. Most journalists do their jobs with little or no thought
given to language theory, i.e. how language works and how humans use language.
Most journalists, consciously or not, accept a theory (metaphor) of language as
a transparent conduit along which word-ideas are easily sent to a reader or
viewer who then experiences reality as portrayed by the words.
From George Lakoff's Moral Politics (U of Chicago P), journalism falsely
- Concepts are literal and nonpartisan: The standard six-question
rubric of journalism (who, what, when, where, why, how) cannot capture the
complexity of issues as seen through, and expressed by, the incompatible
moral systems of liberals and conservatives.
- Language use is neutral: "Language is associated with a conceptual
system. To use the language of a moral or political conceptual system is to
use and to reinforce that conceptual system."
- News can be reported in neutral terms: Not if #2 is correct. To
choose a discourse is to choose a position. To attempt neutrality confuses
the political concepts. Is it an "inheritance tax" or a "death tax"? What
could possibly be a neutral term? To use both in the name of balance is
confusing because most news articles don't have the space, and most TV
treatments don't have the time, to fully explain the terms and why liberals
prefer one and conservatives prefer the other. There's no time or space to
explain why this language difference matters (beyond political tactics) to
formation, implementation, and evaluation of policy.
- Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage: Again,
- All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system: We share
the same English language, i.e. its grammar. We often do not share dialects
denotations and connotations of concepts, lived experience, and ideologies.
The statement "I am a patriotic American" means something entirely different
to liberals and conservatives. That difference is more than a matter of
connotation. The differences in connotation spring from different moral
constructs. What the conservative means by that statement appears immoral to
the liberal and vice versa.
These false assumptions by journalists, rather than overt politicking, help
create the political bias news consumers often detect in news reporting. A
conservative will quite naturally assert a conservative world view by using
concepts in ways comfortable to conservatives. The same goes for liberals. It
is often pointed out that most news reporters are Democrats or vote for
Democrats. Party affiliation, however, tells us nothing about political
ideology and the moral concepts that undergird it. There are conservative
Democrats and liberal Republicans. Be that as it may, the ethics of
journalistic practice strongly urge reporters to adopt the assumptions about
language listed above and the structural biases listed above. The ethics of
journalistic practice encourage journalists to adopt a (nonexistent) neutral
language to mitigate any effects of ideological bias. There simply is
no concerted or sustained effort to slant the news for political purposes by mainstream news
Anti-bias crusading as an elitist practice
Accuracy in Media claims
the the news media are biased toward liberal politics.
Fairness & Accuracy in Media
claims the the news media are biased toward conservative politics. Supporters
of these views see one group as right and the other as wrong. But the reality
is not that simple. Yes, AIM and FAIR each point out coverage that appears to
bolster their various claims. At times, the media do seem to be biased one way
or the other. What these groups don't say, however, is that their mistrust of
the media is also a mistrust of the people. Those who complain most about
media bias would see themselves as able to identify it and resist it. They get
upset about it because they question whether the average American is able to do the
same. If the average American can identify it and resist it, then there is little need to get
upset about bias. The AIM and FAIR web sites are full of material to help
hapless Americans avoid the cognitive ravages of the "evil" conservatives or
the "slandering" liberals and their media lackeys. I believe the
average American is quite capable of identifying problems with news coverage.
In my opinion, crusading against political bias in the news media is an