I thought I’d go right to the source and ask a few people I know. Some of those I interviewed are currently working in media and some spent extensive time in the media in the past.
My first question was “Is the media biased?”
It depends on how you identify “the media.” If you include Breitbart and Huffington Post, then yes, these media are most certainly biased.
What about “mainstream” or “traditional” media? As Celynda Roach, General Manager of Cable One in Boise ID said, “people are comfortable reading or hearing from sources that make them comfortable. There’s a sense that if it’s on the internet, it’s true.”
Mike Collins, a long-time anchor for both the CBS and NBC TV affiliates in South Bend IN said, “sometimes there just isn’t another side to a story. Still, it’s a reporter’s job to uncover the truth and ask the right questions.”
Of course, journalists vote in elections. So naturally there is some bias in their opinions. Many media submit stories through multiple internal layers of editing so that biases are kept to a minimum.
The consensus of the people that I spoke to was that brand name media is typically "down the middle," with much of the perceived bias coming from which stories are covered rather than how they are covered.
But sometimes we like bias. The editorial page of your local or national newspaper is absolutely biased -- by design.
My second question was “How can we ensure that we are getting unbiased information?”
That garnered some excellent suggestions:
- We can’t be at the mercy of whatever we read or see on Facebook and Twitter. Those are not news sources
- Be inquisitive - search out more than one source
- Use some common sense
- Fake news has come to mean “news stories I don’t like” rather than “it’s just incorrect.” Be aware
- We have to be more discerning and more demanding
- Click on the story and read it (not just the headline), and consider the source
- Have you heard of the source? Brand names matter
- How many people or groups are quoted in the story?
- Is it well written? Is the grammar and spelling correct?
- The URL can be a giveaway
But finally, it's important to be a smart news consumer.
"Find out who owns or sponsors the newspaper or television station, just as you should know who contributes to the politician you support. It is also important to read or listen to different viewpoints, not just the ones that reinforce your own bias," said Meg Sauer, former News Director at the CBS TV affiliate in South Bend.
Mainstream is reduced in many cases to headlines and pre-packaged talking points. Solid journalism is out there, you just have to go get it because it no longer comes to you. You may need to extend your sources -- the BBC, Al Jazeera, various podcasts (I'm fond of This American Life and Radio Lab), national newspapers or broadcasts. I learn more when I compare, say, Fox News to CNN than when I watch only one network.
The real hole -- what's missing -- is local news. For example, I live in a small town near a small city (South Bend, IN, the 156th largest MSA, with a population of about 320,000). My town is too small to be covered by the local TV network affiliates and my newspaper is doing their utmost to become irrelevant. Radio news is non-existent. Who can I turn to to get local news, to keep an eye on the City and County Councils, to tell me about the delay in the construction project that's mucked up my daily commute for over a year, and other local topics? I simply can't find a source. I could possibly sort my way through some bias, but the total lack of information is, quite frankly, scary as hell.
Please note, this is a very small sample and in NO WAY are the opinions I’m summarizing here projectable to the entire media universe.
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