The Problem of Misattributed Media Bias–Urban Times piece

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on December 26th, 2012. It is posted here for archival purposes.
Deciphering the intentions and biases of professional journalists is a popular pastime of political activists. (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District/ Flickr)

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How political partisans mistake the natural tendencies of media for ideological animosity.

“Media bias” means radically different things to different people, especially in the United States, it has become yet another front in the culture wars. To a right winger, “media bias” is a lack of ideological diversity in newsrooms, with a majority of journalists being drawn from the halls of “elitist”, left-leaning institutions (e.g. the Ivy League). To a left winger, “media bias” iscorporate influence, media consolidation, and the pressure to keep powerful sources happy. Each side has some favored examples—for the past decade the right has pointed to a supposed leftward slant in coverage of social issues, while the left has pointed to the seemingly deferential coverage of the War on Terror, from the failure to fact check Iraq War intelligence to coverage of drones that omits considerations of civilian casualties and international law.

However, what both of these ideological critiques—to varying degrees—ignore or downplay are the wholly non-ideological tendencies of the media. There are many of these, but this piece will center on the media’s tendency to cover the sensational, unusual, and remarkable. The first incident is one that you might have missed, as it happened in the middle of August: the attempted shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council that left one man, a security guard, injured. The FRC is a socially conservative advocacy group that has provoked major controversy with their generally hostile stance towards LGBT issues, with the respected Southern Poverty Law Center going so far as to controversially label the organization an anti-gay hate group, on a list that includes various Neo-Nazi groups, among others.

Related: Martyn Lewis: Solutions-Driven Journalism and the Future of News

While a motive was not known at the outset, as soon as it became clear that the shooting was politically motivated, those on the right sniffed suspiciously at the media’s treatment of the incident. Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center—an influential right-wing media watchdog—argued on the organization’s blog that the media had ignored the shooting because they wanted to suppress incidents of political violence that didn’t fit their preconceived narrative, which to Bozell, is of portraying right-wingers as hateful ideologues prone to violence. Bozell appeals to the counterfactual in the piece, claiming that if the exact same scenario had occurred with a politically motivated attack on a left-leaning group—even with the same lack of a body count—the media would have been all over the story.

What such an argument misses is the fact that the media places a very high premium on the body count when it comes to violence. The national media, as opposed to local news, has a documented tendency to only focus on crimes when there is a unique or sensational angle to them. To that point, while Bozell and others on the right consider the time that the national newscasts and cable news spent on the story to be scandalously small, the political angle is the very reason why a shooting with no deaths in Washington DC, a city with 108 murder deaths in 2011, got any time on all three of the national newscasts in the first place.

The controversy over the Stanford University study focused on the claims the researchers made about the nutritional value of organic foods, such as those pictured.

[broken/expired photo link removed]

(Image: Tropic~7/ Flickr)

A similar firestorm erupted on the left earlier this year when researchers at Stanford University published a study which found that organic foods were no more nutritious than non-organic foods. Critics on the left pounced, alleging corporate influence on both the study itself and on the media for playing up the study’s negative, if narrow, main conclusion on organic foods. The controversy at times was torn between being angry about the study and the media’s reaction. The fact that the slew of stories used the study to make a broad claim against the value of organics is simply a combination of the media tendency to focus on the remarkable result, and the fact that scientists themselves spin the “flashiest” results in their press releases and abstracts, leaving the mitigating factors and more mundane findings for the few journalists who manage to pick through the paper.

These two examples are not intended to debunk the broader idea that media outlets are capable of exhibiting an ideological bias, as a look at American cable news or British tabloids will make clear. Rather, what these two cases aim to illustrate is that bias is truly in the eye of the beholder. What may seem to be a partisan slant in a story might simply be the result of the observer falling victim to the hostile media effect—a tendency to see the media as biased against their own ideology.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Problem of Misattributed Media Bias.” Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, December 26, 2012. 

1 comment
  1. Reblogged this on PRelation and commented:
    Public relations is highly relied on massive media. When the media adopts certain bias, it can lead to certain culture wars, especially in the US.

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