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Ron Martz: How media bias, real and imagined, affects the way we consume news

During the six years I taught journalism at the University of North Georgia after more than 40 years in the newspaper business, one thing that I continually cautioned students about was bias.

I told them they needed to be particularly conscious of their own biases when reporting and writing stories if they decided to pursue journalism as a career.

I also counseled them that no matter how careful they might be in their reporting and writing, they always would be judged by the biases of those reading, watching or listening to their work.

They could not do much about the latter, but they could reduce the impact of the former by recognizing and taking into account their own biases.

Everyone is biased to one degree or another, although that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, instead, a factor of age, sex, race, ethnicity, environment and a number of other factors.

A 50-something white male reporter or editor who grew up in a small town is not going to report, write or edit a story the same as would a 20-something African-American woman who grew up in the inner city.

They key to dealing with that disconnect — whether writing news or consuming it — is to understand that it exists and to do as much as possible to lessen its impact.

Yet, no one seems willing to do that.

Media bias, real and imagined, and concerns about media bias are not something new. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to keep newspapers from publishing anything the government deemed “false, scandalous, or malicious writing,” including criticism of the presidential actions. Thankfully, that went away in 1801.

During the Civil War, the estimable Abraham Lincoln ordered more than 300 newspapers shut down because they opposed his policies and generally favored the Confederacy. Lincoln also ordered the arrest of 14,000 political prisoners and suspended the writ of habeas corpus, single-handedly shredding two of the most revered aspects of the Constitution.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon’s designated attack dog, Vice President Spiro Agnew, infamously referred to the media as “nattering nabobs of negativity” for their criticism of the administration’s failed Vietnam War policies. Both Nixon and Agnew left office in disgrace.

What is different about more recent attacks on the media is how much they have flourished not only with President Donald Trump’s base, but also among those who don’t necessarily like him but like the Democrats even less.

Poll numbers seem to bear out those concerns about media bias. A 2017 survey on “Trust, Media and Democracy” conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 62 percent of respondents believed that news they read, see and hear in the traditional media is biased.

Belief in bias jumped to 80 percent for news on social media.

In addition, the survey found that 44 percent found the majority of news reporting to be inaccurate. For social media, 64 percent of news was seen as inaccurate.

“To a large degree,” the survey stated, “bias and accuracy appear to be in the eye of the beholder, greatly influenced by whether one agrees with the ideological leaning of the news sources.”

That is something psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” Kendra Cherry, author of “The Everything Psychology Book,” in a recent article wrote that confirmation bias “involves favoring information which confirms previously existing beliefs or biases.”

Our ideas, she writes, “are often based on paying attention to the information that upholds our ideas. At the same time, we tend to ignore the information that challenges our existing beliefs.”

That’s something that is not all that uncommon in the media, science and particularly law enforcement. Someone comes up with a theory then works to prove it, often ignoring any information that may disprove it.

The larger question of whether the media are politically biased has long been settled, by both academic research and numerous polls.

A Pew Research poll conducted during the Barack Obama administration found that liberals outnumber conservatives 5 to 1 among members of the media.

During the last presidential election cycle, 96 percent of media donations went to Hillary Clinton, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Of the $396,000 donated during the campaign by media members, $382,000 went to Clinton while only $14,000 went to Trump.

Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, confirmed the left-leaning bias of the publicly funded network in a piece he wrote for the New York Post last fall.

“When you are liberal,” he wrote, “and everyone else around you is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink on what stories are important, what sources are legitimate and what the narrative of the day will be.”

The larger the media outlet, the more liberal it is likely to be. Smaller regional and local papers tend to be closer to those they serve and thus are more likely to better reflect local views on politics, economics and culture. 

However, the media, especially those in major markets, do little to try to mitigate or understand the disconnect between them and news consumers. If anything, they seem to go out of their way to alienate large portion of potential readers or viewers.

The New York Times offers two recent examples of how far to one side of the political spectrum it has gone in the age of Trump. After the Times hired an editorial writer named Sarah Jeong, it was discovered that before she joined the paper she had posted a number of tweets that were by any measure racist, sexist and ageist.

Jeong made no secret of the fact that she despised anyone who was straight, white or male. She called white men and police a number of names that cannot be repeated here and said she took great joy “out of being cruel to old white men.”

Rather than quickly getting rid of Jeong, the Times doubled down on its hypocrisy, issuing a statement backing her and saying it had counseled her and was now “confident that she will be an important voice for the editorial board moving forward.”

That came only a few months after the Times hired and then quickly fired another candidate for its editorial board because of racist and homophobic tweets. The only difference was that while Jeong is far left, the other candidate was far right.

David Almasi, writing for the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, condemned the Times for its double standard and said that the hiring of Jeong “removes all pretense of moral authority when it comes to future condemnation of the Times’ political opponents for allegedly saying and believing things it perceives to be racist, sexist or bigoted.”

Is there bias in the media?


But there is also bias among media consumers and few of us seem able, or willing, to acknowledge those biases and try to lessen their divisive impact on how we present or consume news.

Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia. His commentaries appear monthly.

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