“That’s the way it is.”
This was the regular sign off of the legendary Walter Cronkite. With these six words he left the audience confident in the accuracy of the information presented and in the veracity of Cronkite himself, doing the presenting. Events and opinion singularized by this one source who delivered “the news”. Bias was almost a non-factor as Cronkite was essentially unimpeachable. The unfailing purveyor of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Well, God bless the 24 hour news cycle, right???? Television, the internet, blogs, Twitter et al. make the news an omnipresent force, no longer relegated to the evening hours surrounding family supper. The breadth and depth of events in the United States alone requires the media to make decisions regarding which stories they will cover and how to disseminate those stories. Pundits must choose the controversy to criticize and activists, the cause to champion. There are always deserving stories that go overlooked and information that is disproportionately overblown (see NFL abuse stories, everywhere, all the time). Such is the nature of news and opinion journalism that reflects the various agendas of those making the decisions. This is the nature of bias.
If the powers that be choose to cover a story there is an inference by the receiving party (the audience, the public, the family watching the news or the guy surfing the net) that it is an important story, a story that deserves our attention. What should accompany this inference is the critical line of thinking that asks: What makes this important? Why is this worthy of my attention? Also, being that time is a limited commodity, if one story is chosen, another must be left out. Which stories weren’t covered and what makes one more valuable than another? A repetitious warning label ought to be applied to the news programs of the dominant media outlets:
THIS PROGRAM CONTAINS ELEMENTS OF JOURNALISTIC SPIN KNOWN TO CAUSE ACUTE, PROGRESSIVE BIAS AND HYPOCRITICAL OVERCONFIDENCE CONCERNING NATIONAL AND WORLD EVENTS. TAKE WITH A GRAIN OF SALT. THINK FOR YOURSELF.
Think back to elementary school to the moment when the teacher called your name, having caught you in the compromised position of passing a note, telling a secret, laughing during a lesson etc. Now, try and remember how the recollection of this story may have changed as you were forced to explain your actions to your parents. In the replay, there are most likely no outright lies as those are too easily exposed. However, the events are altered in such a way as to make your actions seem less disruptive to the learning environment and make the teacher seem just a little meaner and more goblinesque. (For those unaware of this scenario, picture explaining the loss of your pocket protector to your ever doting parents)
A similar motive lies behind the spin and bias of the media. Events are described in such a way as to support the overall world view of a particular news network. Unfavorable aspects of a story are downplayed while favorable elements are repeated over and over again. Are they terrorists or freedom fighters? Is a billion dollars an enormous fortune or a drop in the bucket? Is it cold outside or unseasonably cool allowing you to flaunt that new jacket?
As you read, listen and watch always remember that everyone has an opinion and that there is no such thing as entirely objective journalism. Discover which sources do the best job in presenting facts as facts, checking opinion at the door. Ask yourself where does each network sit on the ideological spectrum and then go a step further and determine how that perspective relates to your own beliefs.
As an aid in this endeavor, I have provided examples of different media outlets and the perspective and bias they bring to their brand of journalism. Bear in mind that the degree to which bias affects reporting will vary dramatically. For example, Fox News is a right-of-center, conservative outlet. MSNBC is a left-wing news source, further left-of-center than FOX is right-of-center :
Conservative – Fox News
Liberal – ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC
Conservative – Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mike Rosen
Liberal – Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, Ed Schultz
Conservative – Wall St. Journal, editorial pages; National Review Magazine
Liberal – New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Washington Post
***Here are two articles on a similar topic. Different sources with different ideological perspectives. Find where the writers sit by recognizing different phrases for the same thing and the tone of each article. Then determine how this compares to your own beliefs.