Countering Bias about Media Bias

“Media trust hits new low,” Axios notes, based on the Edelman “trust barometer” (and I trust this source!). Fifty-eight percent of Americans thought “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”

I think the public vastly underrates the quality of the news media. Almost all (actual) news organizations are predominantly concerned with informing the public, even if they also sometimes promote a political agenda.

And I flatly disagree with the 56% of Americans who say, “Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” In reality, news journalists hardly ever do that.

The partisan divide is pronounced. Last Fall, Gallup found that 73% of Democrats had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust that news media report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Meanwhile, only 10% of Republicans and 36% of independents thought that.

Obviously the Trump presidency fed the partisan schism. Trump and his allies routinely (and mostly unfairly) pilloried the media. After 2015, Democrats gained trust in media by about as much as Republicans lost it—around 20 points. I would describe the media’s coverage of Trump as extremely negative. But, as a “Never Trumper,” I also thought that Trump almost always deserved extremely negative coverage. So my trust in news media has remained about the same, pretty high.

To a large degree, American news media suffer a perception problem—many people think it’s a lot worse than it is. Partisan attacks on news media explain much of this. I think another big problem is that many people just aren’t very discerning in their media consumption. They see a lot of bogus claims pop up in their social media feeds, some of which look like they come from legitimate publications, and they either confuse these sources with real news media or they believe bogus complaints about news media.

Yes, journalists sometimes get details wrong or omit important details in their stories. Yet often the best critiques of news media come from the news media and from op-ed writers associated with prominent publications. For example, good discussion of the blow-up between 60 Minutes and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over vaccinations came from the Washington Post, Axios, and Tampa Bay’s Fox13, among other outlets. (I won’t try to untangle that mess here.) Another example: Zeynep Tufecki, who writes for the Atlantic, often criticizes news publications for their choice of photographs that overemphasize the risks of outdoor coronavirus transmission.

Journalists on Twitter often point out that people who complain about lack of media coverage on some issue usually point to media coverage of precisely that issue to make their point. Similarly, a lot of people point to media criticism of news media as though that somehow casts doubt on the overall trustworthiness of media. On the whole, though, media—and here I include news reporters, op-ed writers, and better agenda-oriented publications such as Reason magazine, Complete Colorado (where I write), and the left-leaning Colorado Times Recorder—do a pretty good job of media house-cleaning.

Generally, news reporters and op-ed writers hate to get basic facts wrong. It sucks. It’s embarrassing. Good writers try hard to gather facts reliably, and, if they screw up, they issue the necessary corrections.

Claims of bias often are harder to evaluate, but good writers at least try not to be biased. One problem is that a lot of people seem to think “bias” means anything they disagree with, but that’s just not what it means. A bias is some tendency to overlook or distort facts to promote some agenda. Two people can honestly reach very different conclusions based on the same set of facts, just because reality is complicated and we never have perfect information.

In news media, overt bias is pretty rare. If, on any given day, you read all the news articles from ten randomly selected (real) news publications, you’d be hard pressed to find any examples of blatant falsehoods intended to deceive readers. More often you might think that a story should have included some additional facts that it omitted or should have emphasized facts differently. Or you might think that a story tries to guide the reader by innuendo to the reporter’s political conclusions. We can and should discuss these sorts of subtle biases, but we should acknowledge that reasonable people often will disagree about what manifests a bias.

Even if a story is subtly biased, we can still learn relevant facts from it. Generally, the way to see past media bias is to read news reports critically, think about what facts a story may omit or downplay, evaluate the reporter’s aims, and read multiple sources.

I conclude two main things, then. First, usually news media is pretty good. Second, a large part of the answer to biased media is more media.