Media bias trend deepens the news consumer divide

Apr 12, 2022 | Fleischaker/Greene, News

(Editor’s note: Photo by Christ Montgomery on Unsplash.)

By Hannah Clausen

The media of all kinds play a daily role in the lives of Americans and for many, news media remains a staple in the daily routine. Whether a morning cup of coffee and a side of cable news, listening to a podcast on the drive to work or simply scrolling social media, many consume news — as much as eight hours a day on digital devices, four hours with television, 95 minutes with radio and another 17 minutes with newspapers and magazine, data gathered in 2020 by Statista shows. 

But how much do we trust our news sources? How much should we trust them?

            • When it comes to corporate media, media bias charts from sources such as the Poynter Institute show nearly every outlet leans to one side or the other. 

• Eight out of every 10 Americans believe news outlets favor one side when covering political and social news, a share that has increased by seven points since 2019, Pew Research Center data from 2020 shows. 

• From the same survey, a mere 20% of respondents said news media organizations fairly cover all sides. 

• As of December 2021, 60% of Americans responding to a Pew survey said they have little to no confidence that journalists act in the best interests of the public. 

            Kelli Wagoner, 48, lives in Cadiz, Kentucky, and like many others who have lost faith in the mainstream news media, has difficulty choosing where to turn for information. 

“I trust the local news, but not the mainstream media,” Wagoner said. “I think the mainstream media, like FOX, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, etc., are corrupt and politicized, giving opinions and talking points instead of actual news. I stopped trusting the corporate news about a decade ago when they refused to investigate allegations made against President Obama about his birthplace and the people he associated with.”

            Lisa Meacham, 63, lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and consumes news every day from a variety of sources. She doesn’t trust the mainstream media, mostly because of politics. Instead, she prefers local radio and TV for news.

“It seems money and power is a large factor in producing what is relayed to viewers as news,” Meacham said. “It certainly is not always truthful.”

She prefers to research topics and discuss news with those knowledgeable about different subjects. Meacham added that she only reads news from websites that show where their information is obtained. 

“I see news sources that contradict other news sources, all proclaiming they have the ‘inside story’ on something,” Meacham said. “Some sources I feel are more reliable than others.”

She gets her news from her locally owned news stations as well as One America News Network.

As shown by polls and conversations with everyday Americans, many feel unheard and unrepresented by the media. 

“The [news media] seem political and very biased against many Americans, including myself, who just want the news,” Wagoner said. “We can make our own decisions, just give us the facts. We shouldn’t be bullied into believing a certain way, or ostracized and censored for having a differing view.”

 Wagoner, a nurse, focuses heavily on research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health and other prominent scientists and epidemiologists. She also follows statistics and yearly trends.

“I take nothing at face value, and I research everything,” she said. “Someone’s life could depend on my knowledge.” 

People on both sides of the political aisle can agree that a lack of trust in the media is an issue. News reporters have historically served an essential role in our democracy. British politician Edmund Burke was reported to have said that there were three estates in Parliament, “but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than them all.” The phrase ‘Fourth Estate’ now refers to the news media’s job as a government watchdog. 

In her book “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy” — described as an “ink-bound alarm bell” — Margaret Sullivan wrote extensively about the results of local journalism dying off in small communities throughout the country. The result is government corruption flourishing and government efficiency failing, she wrote. While her focus was on local news, a lack of a free press keeping tabs on elected officials is an issue at every level of government. 

“I don’t think people really understand how journalism works and what responsible reporters do in order to make sure that their journalism is responsible and fair and accurate,” said Andie Tucher, the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism and the director of the doctoral program at the Columbia Journalism School. 

“It’s very easy for people to dismiss something as biased or wrong or stupid without understanding processes that journalists have gone through to get there.”

Tucher added that the idea that journalism should be plainly neutral and objective, one side and the other, is a misunderstanding of professional journalism. 

“The idea was that you should approach fact finding in a way that is rigorous, that tests the facts against your assumptions, tests your assumptions against the facts, applies a scientific rigor to observing phenomena without applying your own preconceptions to it,” she said. “And it’s a method of testing and verification that is supposed to allow reporters to feel that they have seen the topic from various sides and have come to a reasoned conclusion. It doesn’t mean they can’t ever express opinion or they always have to have someone balancing the other side.”

Some journalists have renounced the objectivity standard, calling it outdated and opting for openly-biased reporting. 

In his acceptance speech for the Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism in 2021, NBC News anchor Lester Holt said “fairness is overrated” and providing a platform for “misinformation” is dangerous. 

“The idea that we should always give two sides equal weight and merit does not reflect the world we find ourselves in,” he said during the speech. “That the sun sets in the west is a fact. Any contrary view does not deserve our time or attention.”

He’s not the only one. New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones told CBS News, “All journalism is activism.”

Lauren Wolfe, a former freelance editor for the New York Times who was fired over a pro-Biden tweet, wrote an opinion piece in Washington Monthly in July titled, “I’m a Biased Journalist and I’m Okay with That.” She said that “being fair and having [a] point of view aren’t incompatible” and journalists “shouldn’t have to disguise or suppress their views.” 

She criticized news organizations with a “relentless need to find objective balance” in reporting and argued that has led to a “dangerous imbalance” where outlets give equal space to “lies” and facts. 

“I’ve always believed it is better to be open about my views on the issues I cover, which for a long time have been war and international human rights,” Wolfe wrote. “And yes, I often do write with an agenda — with an eye toward creating change. So yes, I am biased, and consciously so when it comes to certain subjects — especially when I’m reporting on criminality. But I don’t see that as a bad thing.”

DePaul University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall believes “there has always been a prominent role for opinion in journalism, and the First Amendment surely allows for the media to engage in activism,” as he told Fox News. “However, professional ethics in American journalism is to keep opinion and advocacy in a separate lane from the straightforward presentation of facts. We live in a dangerous time today, however, when professional journalists want to blend opinion and reporting into the same place.”

The problem with cable news shows is the majority of airtime is filled with speculation, analysis and opinion — not news, which may be confusing for viewers who are expecting news reporting, according to Rich Shumate, an assistant professor in Western Kentucky University’s School of Media.

Rich Shumate

This could contribute to a skewed view of the network.

“Whether you think it’s justified or whether you think it’s irrational, it exists,” Shumate said about media bias.His recently published book, “Barry Goldwater, Distrust in Media, and Conservative Identity: The Perception of Liberal Bias in the News” examines one aspect of media bias.

“I think we saw on Jan. 6 what happens when people believe the media is biased and they don’t trust the media. They begin to believe things that are demonstrably untrue. So the media was saying the election wasn’t rigged. The results were fair, there’s no proof of fraud, and millions of people just refuse to believe that because they’d sort of been primed to think that the media is biased. And so that was the kind of the deleterious effect it had.”

Media bias is a claim largely attributed to conservatives. However, polls show that news consumers across the political spectrum are losing faith in the news media. Numbers like four out of every five Americans, from Pew Research Center, believing news organizations covering political or social issues favor one side or the other does not come from one side of the aisle alone.

“I think the public perception of the media has been formed by the actions of the media,” said Cabot Phillips, an editor, writer and commentator with The Daily Wire, a conservative media company.

“There’s a reason that there’s record-low trust in media right now, and it’s because people have seen with their own eyes the way the media treats stories and the way they cover stories and the way they inject their opinion. And I think, if you have a question of, ‘Does media bias exist?’ the answer is in the dropping ratings of these media outlets. The answer is the number of alternative media outlets that’s cropping up because people want something else. I think both sides are waking up to how bad it is.”

Tucher adds another viewpoint.

“It’s so much easier to find the media that tell you what you want to hear, and then that feels like you are reading reporting,” Tucher said. “It feels like you’re doing your research. But they’re getting it from places that sometimes are highly opinionated and sometimes hide their opinionated approach, and it’s sometimes difficult to know where that information came from, who is reporting it, who says it’s reporting, how that information was gathered.”

A Pew Research Center poll showed that 83% of respondents believe news outlets tend to favor one side and base the “favoritism” on the news organizations, rather than the reporters. This tendency displays equally through both political parties. Two-thirds of those who blame the news outlets cite political views or agenda as the source of bias. Only 20% blame financial interests and 8% blame poor journalistic practices. A potential reason for this is that Americans typically think journalists can distance personal views from reporting, Pew research showed.

“There are many readers who say that objectivity, whatever they imagine that to mean, objectivity is dead,” Tucher said. “‘It doesn’t tell us what we need to know. Everybody has preconceptions and ideas, so we need to know what those are so that we can evaluate what those reporters are saying.’ I’m not sure that’s really the answer. I’m not sure that more transparency about the reporters’ own preconceptions allows us to trust the reporter more. It’s difficult.”

Local news stations are widely viewed as more trustworthy — 76% of respondents across the political spectrum have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in local television stations, a 2018 Poynter Institute survey showed. 

As for local newspapers, 73% have confidence in their reporting — a sharp contrast to the 59% that expressed confidence in national newspapers.

The lack of trust in the media breeds the perfect environment for “opinionists” to flourish. 

The popularity of news outlets such as The Daily Wire and talk shows such as “The Joe Rogan Experience” have taken off in recent years with no indication of slowing down. Mainstream media talk show hosts such as CNN’s Brian Stelter recognize that trust in their institutions is withering and conservative companies are taking over the top spot for consumers. On his show “Reliable Sources,” Stelter acknowledged that “figures like Rogan are trusted by people that don’t trust real newsrooms,” and because of that “we have tension, a problem that’s much bigger than Spotify, much bigger than any single platform.”

            Many people are turning to opinion sources that match their beliefs because they believe they can trust them. CNN’s viewership dropped 90% overall in the first week of 2022, Neilsen ratings showed. The network averaged 548,000 viewers during the week of Jan. 3, whereas during that same week of 2021 they averaged 2.7 million. 

“Mainstream outlets will complain, ‘Why are Americans going elsewhere? Why are Americans going to these opinionated people?’” said Phillips. “It’s because the establishment is driving them there. And if they were doing their job, then there wouldn’t be as much of a vacuum that’s being formed.”

Meanwhile, podcasts such as “The Joe Rogan Experience” average 11 million listeners per episode, Newsweek reported. The Daily Wire, a conservative media organization, has grown into a $100 million a year company in only five years. Their “Morning Wire” podcast, a quick deep dive into the day’s top stories sans commentary, sits in the top five on Apple’s daily news podcasts chart. 

“I think what’s different now is that if you have a particular point of view you can choose media that caters to your point of view and you don’t have to listen to anything else,” Shumate said. “That’s different than it was before cable news and talk radio because before that, people were getting their news from the networks and mainstream media outlets that had these objectivity standards.”

For consumers, the trust gets broken down when outlets say “just the facts” then present what viewers construe as biased or slanted reporting. 

“I think that if more media outlets were honest about who they are and what they are, then it would be easier for people to sift through what they can and can’t trust,” Phillips said. “So, at The Daily Wire, we’re very open about the fact that we’re conservative. We say at the bottom of every news article, ‘We are the largest fastest growing conservative news outlet in America.’ We don’t pretend to not have bias. We’re picking our stories based on educating voters.”

With an increasing number of media consumers turning to alternative news sources, increased polarization is a natural byproduct. In turn, as a country we are more partisan and likely less informed, Shumate said.

“[Media bias has] played a role in increasing partisanship and increasing the division because it sort of creates this cycle of outrage and noise that people get caught up in in their own world,” Shumate said. “I think there is evidence that we’re more polarized than we used to be. And the polarization has sort of gone hand-in-hand with this rise of partisan media.”

Phillips believes many of the country’s issues are at least in part a result of media bias.

“It’s the division that’s growing,” he said. “It’s people not trusting the media. It’s people not trusting each other. And I think it’s a problem when no one knows who or what they can trust. And I think if we talk about the breakdown of institutions, one of the institutions used to be the media, an institution in America that people felt like they could trust back when the news is just the news. And now it’s opinion.”

Because viewers feel lied to from traditional news outlets, they tend to trust alternative media sources because they are open about their bias.

“I think not even anecdotally but logically speaking, there’s evidence that, OK, people are told, ‘Media is objective, it’s not lying to them,’” Phillips said. “Then they see with their own eyes, ‘OK, as I do my own research, it is not objective. And I am being lied to.’ And I think it creates resentment, where they think, ‘I’m going to go to the complete opposite of what you’re giving me right now,’ which is a lot of times these super opinionated media outlets.”

The risk with turning solely to opinion sources for news is a lack of crosscutting information and exposure to other points of view. Though there are a variety of differing opinions within both parties, it can still create an echo chamber for consumers. 

“If people are only seeing the information about their own side that they agree with, they’re going to be less likely to change their mind,” Shumate said. “They’re going to be more tied to that kind of partisan viewpoint, which I think drives us further apart.”

Most consumers put a lot of stock in the credibility of news organizations and reporters, which influences how much the consumer believes what they report. However, thoughts of credibility seem to go out the window where social media is concerned. People tend to repeat or share what they read on their news feeds without fact checking with even a simple Google search. Considering all such information to be journalism can be damaging.

“What social media does is it allows a lot of really unvetted material to be put out there that people sort of take as news,” Shumate said. “One thing I always tell my students is, ‘You should not be getting your news from Twitter. Twitter is not a verified news source.’ But a lot of people do. And I think it has allowed unverified, and in some cases, demonstrably false information to circulate in a way that it didn’t circulate before. And that certainly has made everything worse.”

A survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation showed that 84% of respondents believe the news media is to blame for our divided country. An even larger number, 86%, believe media outlets lean to one side or the other. Notably, this is not divided by party lines but occurs on both sides. 

Americans also believe the media is deliberately pushing an agenda, 74% are concerned media company owners are influencing news coverage, up five points since 2017, Gallup reported. 

“(Media bias is) a huge problem, because I think it it leads to more division in the country, when you have entire outlets who are trying to mislead people into thinking things that just aren’t true,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s about COVID, or whether it’s about any issue in America right now, the media has an incentive to push lies because it’s what gets them more money, it gets them more clicks and it gets them more views. Their incentive is not to tell the truth, their incentive is to get people riled up.”

According to a Gallup poll, 54% believe reporters misrepresent the facts, and 28% believe believe reporters make up the facts entirely.

 The widespread belief that the news media is unreliable has larger implications than news consumers being more critical of what they hear or turning to opinion sources for their news. 

The effects show up at the ballot boxes. 

Coverage of the discovery of a laptop that possibly belonged to Hunter Biden rested soley with the New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which was promptly banned by major social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, and its official Twitter account was suspended until they deleted the tweet, according to Business Insider. The findings on the laptop, which came out right before the 2020 election, raised questions of President Joe Biden’s involvement with his son’s foreign business deals — including Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company linked to corruption, the Post reported.

Days after the report, CNN called it “dubious” and the New York Times used anonymous sources to discount the story. The Daily Beast ran a headline that stated, “Russian State Media Is Desperately Trying to Keep the Hunter Biden Story Alive” and another, “FBI Examining Hunter’s Laptop As Foreign Op, Contradicting Trump’s Intel Czar.” 

Taxpayer-funded NPR tweeted that it would not be covering the laptop story.

 “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions,” it announced.

Hunter Biden never denied that the laptop was his. He said it “certainly” could be his in an interview with CBS “Sunday Morning.” 

“After the campaign, there’s plenty of polling that showed if people knew what had happened with the Hunter Biden laptop scandal it may have influenced the way they voted,” Phillips said. “That’s a direct example of how the only reason they didn’t know is because the media didn’t cover it.”

In March 2022, the New York Times published a story with the headline, “Hunter Biden Paid Tax Bill, but Broad Federal Investigation Continues.” In the story, the Times reported in paragraph 24 that the laptop in question was confirmed to be Hunter Biden’s. 

In June 2021, shortly before the Virginia gubernatorial election, The Daily Wire broke the story of a girl who was raped in the girls’ bathroom of a Loudon County public school by a boy who was allegedly “gender-fluid” and wearing a skirt, the victim’s parents said. A public records request confirmed a police report with “Offense: Forcible Sodomy [and] Sexual Battery” exists with matching date and time, The Daily Wire reported. The school said it wanted to handle the matter “in-house” and did not contact the police. Police were involved by the victim’s father. The Loudon County Sheriff’s Office reported that the same boy sexually assaulted another girl four months prior and was transferred to a different school in the same district. 

After The Daily Wire released the story, mainstream outlets like the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN began covering it.

“If you actually looked at the polling data before that story came out, people were listing immigration, inflation, things like that as their number one motivating factor and then by the end of the campaign education was the number one issue for voters,” Phillips said. “So I think that if that story hadn’t happened, if the media hadn’t covered it, people probably wouldn’t have voted the way they did.”

 During summer 2020, Black Lives Matter protests and riots occurred throughout the country. A CNN reporter covering a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020, stood in front of a building engulfed in flames. The “crawl” on the screen stated, “FIERY BUT MOSTLY PEACEFUL PROTESTS AFTER POLICE SHOOTING.”

Left-leaning media aren’t the only skewed ones. Vox compiled a diagram comparing Fox News’ coverage of prominent news stories during the Trump administration with parallel coverage from MSNBC and CNN. Vox found that Fox News covered “mainstream media and fake news” significantly more than the other channels, as well as Hillary Clinton and tax cuts. However, they gave significantly less coverage to the Robert Mueller and Russia investigation, Donald Trump (in general) and almost no coverage to Stormy Daniels’ allegations that she had an affair with the president in 2006. 

During the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, 2021, multiple Fox News hosts — including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade — sent texts to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urging the president to make a statement and to tell people to go home. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, revealed the texts during a House committee hearing not aired on Fox News. The texts were also not discussed on Fox that day, even during Hannity’s show with Meadows as his guest.

            In a study titled, “Character Endorsements and Electoral Endorsements,” authors Archishman Chakraborty and Parikshit Ghosh explore whether and how media bias affects electoral outcomes. 

Their election model assumes the media and voters agree that candidates should be honest, fair, intelligent and ethical. However, the two groups diverge on policy issues. This divergence could be interpreted as ideological bias on the part of the media and the gulf between the opinion of the “media elites” and the general public, as demonstrated by a survey of the two groups conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

            Studies show news consumers are aware of editorial slant in news coverage and account for it, so it may be a non-issue. The problem, at least in the authors’ model, is that the media possess crucial information about candidates that consumers don’t. The public has easy access to candidates’ policy positions, but the media is responsible for reporting their background and record. The news media, particularly those run by “media elites,” may not be motivated to paint an honest picture of the candidates they disagree with and instead play up the candidates they like — which is where media bias comes into play, per the study. This dynamic fosters a tug of war between knowledge and authority — the media has the knowledge of the candidates’ character while the public has the authority to elect representatives. 

“Parties face a tension between opposing temptations of pandering to the voter and courting the media,” authors state. “Adopting slightly more elitist policies than the rival induces a slightly higher probability of endorsement and electoral victory — a phenomenon we call elitism creep.”  

            Therefore, in the model, politicians are incentivized to pander to the “media elites” for more flattering coverage, rather than pandering to voters. The public interprets good coverage as an indication of their character, though in reality the media simply prefers their policies. Electoral outcomes then favor the elites because candidates pander to them and the media boosts the candidate with favorable coverage, the study found. However, if a candidate goes too far to please “media elites,” the other candidate might try to take advantage of that by going to the opposite end of the spectrum and renouncing the elites in a “flight to populism,” authors state. Though the candidate will be burned by the media, the research shows that voters may like an exotic candidate that doesn’t take the typical elite position. 

            The authors conclude that voters in their model would fare better without the media if their coverage shifts political debate too much because candidates would stick to issues voters value, though candidates of low integrity might fool voters more easily without anyone to dig into them.

            The dynamic between voters and the news media is more complicated in real-world elections — some people don’t perceive media bias, some are selective about the media they consume and some get their news from social media. There is concern that what Facebook chooses to show consumers could affect opinions because they suppress conservative news, reported Gizmodo, a science and technology publication, or that Google’s algorithm could affect an election, Wired reported. The study highlights key problems voters face: The media holds the information concerning candidates’ character but they aren’t always motivated to fully and accurately report it.

 So, where does the media go from here?

“If somebody doesn’t trust the media, there’s nothing the media can do to make them trust the media,” Shumate said. “And so since that’s lost, and since that thread’s lost, I’m not really sure how we get it back. And I think the media sometimes does things that aggravate the situation. There’s a lot of very superficial coverage.”

A motivating factor for all corporations, media included, is profit. Phillips believes the media will not change until they have a financial incentive. 

“I think people have gotten sick and tired of it and they stopped watching,” Phillips said. “At a certain point they have to say, ‘OK, what are we doing wrong? This is not sustainable, we’re not going to be able to survive.’ And that’s when they start to say, ‘Alright, let’s give objective news coverage a try, let’s see if that’s gonna make people want to watch us again.’ So I trust the market to alleviate a lot of the problems.”

But for that to work, consumers have to use their purchasing power to influence the market. It would seem they have already begun. Neilsen ratings show that cable news networks saw sizable drops in viewership in 2021. CNN’s viewership dropped 34%. Fox News Channel’s dropped 34%. And MSNBC dropped 25%. 

A survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation showed that 84% of respondents believe the news media is to blame for the division in our country, and the same percentage believe the media could serve as a healing force.

“I hope there is an understanding among people of goodwill that this is an untenable situation and that there are ways each of us can approach our media consumption that don’t contribute to the the polarization and the bias that we see,” Tucher said. “A lot of it is simply each of us getting up in the morning and deciding, ‘I’m going to be responsible in what I read. I’m going to be responsible in what I tell other people that I’ve read. I’m going to evaluate what I see.’”

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