Skewed news. . .Can you recognize it?
April 2011 – There are always at least two sides to a story – whether it’s who broke the lamp by playing football inside the house, or who started the war by firing the first shot.
What happens when a journalist, the person who is supposed to educate the public about an event or issue, makes a decision – conscious or unconscious – to ignore or minimize one side of a story? What if the majority of journalists are sympathetic toward one side of a story? When this happens, those journalists are demonstrating their bias. It is difficult to watch the current 24-hour news cycle today, listen to talk radio or read online or print news without meeting the terms “liberal bias” or “conservative bias.” But what do these terms mean?
The problem of bias
According to a 2005 study led by the UCLA political science department, media bias is real and can be measured. Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the study’s lead author stated, “I suspected that media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democratic than Republican. But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are.”
The study, with the help of Jeffrey Milyo, University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar, used 21 research assistants to study U.S. media coverage for the previous 10 years. The researchers then tallied each time a media outlet referred to think tanks and policy groups, such as the left-leaning NAACP or the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. Of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 skewed the news to the political left.
Some faulted the study because even the conservative Drudge Report was found to be slightly left of center. Groseclose stated, “One thing people should keep in mind is that our data for the Drudge Report was based almost entirely on the articles that the Drudge Report lists on other Web sites. Very little was based on the stories that Matt Drudge himself wrote. The fact that the Drudge Report appears left of center is merely a reflection of the overall bias of the media.”
While the UCLA study found the majority of media outlets have a left-of-center bias as a whole, how many of the journalists who actually present news to the American people have a liberal bent? The Media Research Center has compiled studies focusing on individual journalists’ political views dating back to 1981. In that year, according to a study by Robert Lichter, then with George Washington University, and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, “More than four-fifths of the journalists interviewed voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election between 1964 and 1976.” The study also revealed “Ninety percent of those interviewed believe a woman has a right to decide for herself whether to have an abortion; 79% agree strongly with the pro-choice position.”
In a 1985 study conducted by the Los Angeles Times, 55% of journalists said they were liberal, with 12% stating they were “very liberal,” and 43% saying they were “somewhat liberal.”
The MRC compilation includes a 2005 study from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy. The study surveyed 300 journalists nationwide and found: “More than half the journalists surveyed said they voted for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, while 19% said they voted for Republican George W. Bush.”
The journalists were then asked if, generally, they considered themselves Democrat, Republican, Independent or something else. The results showed 33% self identified as Democrat, while only 10% said they were Republican.
While being identified with a particular party does not necessarily make one conservative or liberal, identifying candidates the journalists personally support does give the general public an idea of where they stand on social, fiscal and cultural issues. So how did the bias become so widespread?
How bias became mainstream
Fred Jackson, director of AFA’s news outlet OneNewsNow.com and a journalist since the 1970s, says there is no short answer. He said, “When I started working in journalism, I was blessed to be trained by some of the best journalists in the world. They were ex-BBC journalists. Even though they were not saved, in fact, they were very liberal, they had a very old-school approach to journalism. They felt the role of the reporter was to be a reflector of what was happening and not insert personal bias into the story. In the 1960s, through the wake of the Vietnam protests, there was a generation of journalists who regarded themselves as agents of change. They came through a university system that largely blamed the U.S. for everything that is wrong in the world and they were out to change that.
“By the 1980s there was a new way of thinking about journalism that became known as ‘point-of-view journalism.’ They surrendered the idea that a journalist could be unbiased and, because it was impossible, no journalist should be afraid to put his bias into a report. They had an almost messianic point of view that it is the role of the journalist to bring people to the truth, a truth that is defined by the individual journalist or the organization he works for.”
Those “agents of change” journalists soon became leaders in mainstream news organizations. And, as Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media observes, those leaders hire people with similar beliefs. He said, “People tend to surround themselves with people that are like them. That’s normal, not anything unusual. There’s a bias based on disliking certain people versus a bias based on choosing people who are like you. You want someone who thinks like you and tells you what a great person you are.”
Bias: How to spot it
As the mainstream media began to take a decided liberal turn 40 years ago, “point-of-view journalism” came into common use. Major media outlets went further and further to inject personal or institutional bias into news stories, and conservative thought lost a seat at the table. Consequently, conservative minds began to create conservative news outlets. Generally, these conservative groups are quite transparent concerning their bias.
Whether the news source you read has a liberal or conservative bent, it is important to be able to spot bias, and there are some practical ways to do that.
The first is to determine if your news source acknowledges a bias. For example, AFA is open about its stand on the authority of the Bible – it believes abortion is murder and homosexuality is sin. Some call it conservative bias, and others call it bigoted or worse, but AFA calls it a Christian worldview.
In general, a liberal worldview holds a set of beliefs that begins with the rejection of absolute truth. But as soon as the concept of absolute truth is gone, the concept of standing on morality becomes obsolete.
Another example of being honest about bias came from Lawrence O’Donnell, a host on MSNBC. On November 6, 2010, O’Donnell said, “…I am not a progressive. I am not a liberal who’s so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to progressive. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist.”
If you listen to or read a news source long enough, most will reveal their bias and worldview. Sadly, what often happens is that a news group or journalist spends as much effort demeaning or attacking the “other side” as defending its own bias. For example, Jackson points out, “One of the ways we see the liberal worldview play out practically is in the coverage of Sarah Palin. When Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate, one of the first things the major networks did was jump on airplanes and go to Alaska. They then went to her church. It is very interesting they targeted that as the first piece of evidence that she was inept to lead because she was going to an evangelical church.”
Second, after listening for stated bias of a news source, do some critical thinking. Realize that sometimes a worldview will cause journalists to use certain words. For example, some choose to say “pro-life” while others choose “anti-abortion.” When reading a story, look at it from as many angles as possible. Ask if both sides of an issue are getting equal and fair treatment and, if not, search for the other side of the story.
The last way to spot media bias is to read several sources. While this may take more time, the benefit of being well-educated is well worth it. Also, read contemporary authors who analyze current news through a biblical worldview. Jackson recommends David Jeremiah and John McArthur for deeper biblical understanding of today’s issues. But also read what those with a liberal worldview are saying. Consulting numerous sources will not only develop your critical thinking skills, but also strengthen your worldview by having it both challenged and encouraged.
These Internet news sites are among the favorites of AFA journalists. They represent a variety of perspectives, so the suggestions above on spotting news bias apply.