While America is obviously severely polarized down politically partisan lines, most of us have a favorite punching bag we tend to unite around: the mainstream media.
It’s fairly common to see hawks of both left, right and middle agree about that devil that is supposedly wracked with bias and serves only to divide us; misinform or outright lie to us; sow confusion and stoke fears; and just in general pander to what we think is the worst in us as humans.
If you agree with any of those assessments, I have news for you (pun intended): you’re dangerously wrong.
Before explaining why you’re wrong, first some context on my opinion. Obviously, I’m a writer. As such, my first choice of major in college was journalism because I wanted to improve my skills as a writer and, despite preferring creative writing, I thought I might enjoy making my living doing any form of it as my career. My two-year Associate degree is in journalism, and it wasn’t until I had a poor experience interning at my university student newspaper that I realized the stress of professional journalism wasn’t worth it when factoring in the low amount of income I was likely to earn. So I switched majors.
Nonetheless, after I graduated, eventually I found myself reporting for a small local newspaper part-time to earn some money while I looked for permanent work. Years later, I’d end up spending a year as managing editor for that same newspaper while also working a full daytime job, something I thoroughly enjoyed but ended up not being able to sustain while balancing work and single parenthood. It was a wonderful experience, though (I was even honored to win a statewide press award), and something I could see myself returning to as my life reprioritizes itself as I age.
So when I see others attack mainstream media, you’re going after my people. For the most part, journalists are honorable, ethical people who care about informing us about what’s going on in the world. There are, of course, several exceptions, though, and being informed in how you consume media is the trick in not allowing your own biases to completely cloud your judgment and surround yourself with media that will in fact poison your outlook.
Because if you have been a media basher, several of your critiques are true, they’re just not properly understood. In ancient history, of course, there was no such thing as media: your “news” came either from word of mouth or from your ruling government, which was heavily biased (I think of the proclamations in the Roman Empire of the divinity and glory of the emperors as a prime example). It’s not really until the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century that pamphlets started circulating, and in the 16th Century the first forms of newspapers were started.
From the very beginning, these proto-newspapers were nothing more than people spreading around their opinions. It’s not until the 18th Century that they really became interested in informing about news for the sake of the news, but even still, of course, they were heavily biased. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes freedom of the press in part because of how influential the press had been in shoring up extremely partisan (biased) support for the American Revolution.
So even today, of course, media has bias. Why? Because so do you: humans by nature are biased. We all have beliefs, we all have opinions, we all have preferences. And in addition to that, those in the media have to make choices – what stories will be covered? how will we present them?
But mainstream media has come a very long way over the last 200 years. There has been concerted effort by a large segment to intentionally become as unbiased as possible, while accepting that complete lack of bias is impossible. There are many news organizations that do exemplary work reporting relevant news in a fair manner – however, many of those same organizations have been intentionally slandered by those on the political right (our current president being the largest perpetrator) because they have dared to fairly report news that they didn’t like. As a result, “fake news” has become a part of our vocabulary, directed at the very institutions that report news the best.
I paid 15 bucks to be able to share this with you – it’s the increasingly popular Media Bias Chart put out by Ad Fontes Media, Inc. They use a methodology in order to determine the level of bias – left and right – and accuracy of reporting for the major news outlets. Of course, it’s not as if their methodology is gospel, but it’s a good starting point and lines up well with the observations of those of us who pay attention to and are educated in the art of news reporting.
So aside from bias, here’s the other dirty secret for most news organizations that isn’t a secret at all: if they’re a for-profit business, they have to make money. Just as with any business, to make money, you have to sell your product, or sell ad space, and often to do that, part of your motivation thus becomes reporting news that either panders to a particular group of people or businesses (thus encouraging them to support you with their dollars) and / or reporting news that encourages people to pay attention to you. That’s the major reason most news that is reported is “bad” news – it sells. People aren’t nearly as interested in hearing stories about good things; they want the train wrecks. Likewise, fear sells – stories that rile up our gut reactions to particular issues, that cater to our prejudices, are popular.
That’s why the organizations at the ends of this spectrum are troublesome, and what is particularly troublesome is that for many of us, they have become the preferred sources for most of our news: the very organizations that are in fact the most biased and do the worst job of being fair and reporting in a trustworthy manner. They are slanting our opinions and deepening our prejudices and skewing our perceptions of reality along partisan lines: InfoWars completely unsurprisingly is Unreliable, while Occupy Democrats, Daily Kos, Daily Caller, and Fox News TV are Somewhat Unreliable.
Because of its popularity, Fox News does the most damage. It has become the go-to “mainstream” news source for most people who identify as conservative, and yet because it is as biased and unreliable as it is, it is distorting reality for those who consume it. One of the best articles I’ve read explaining how this works, specifically in regard to stoking fear, was this pre-2016 election piece in Rolling Stone by Neil Strauss, “Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear.” Read it. Please.
And, yes, the right’s favorite sources to castigate for left-leaning news – CNN and MSNBC – do, in fact, lean left and offer less-reliable news than the best organizations. Your best bet for good reporting with as little bias as possible are those in that green quadrant of Most Reliable, particularly those north of the intersecting Mixed Reliability line: the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, NPR, ABC, NBC, CBS, USA Today – hey, look at that….MAINSTREAM MEDIA.
Still reliable but not quite at the top of the game are The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, even Christianity Today. Personal favorites of mine are Vox and The Atlantic Monthly, which don’t score as highly as some others but still deliver solid stories and opinion pieces, though they of course lean more left than other sources.
It’s crucially important that we are accurately informed about the reality of the world around us. Too many of us are being duped into buying into the “fake news” mentality surrounding mainstream media, which is demonstrably false. So instead, we’re getting our information from starkly biased and unreliable fringe groups and social media, or from Fox.
These are the facts about the media. If you hear differently, it’s people trying to confuse or spin you for their own gain. It’s desperately important to the preservation and welfare of our republic and our world that you are accurately informed and not subconsciously pressured into partisan biases that others are trying to dupe you into for their own selfish ambitions and profit.