If possession is nine-tenths of the law (and of course it isn’t), then perception is nine-tenths of relative reality. In other words, facts don’t dictate common perceptions nearly as much as does our inner biases.
You’re wondering where I’m headed; two questions. The first answer brought a little self-reflection, irony, and a scratch on the head, all of which add up to the second. But I digress.
First question: Are mainstream media biased?
Loaded, I know. Self-evident, some might say. Right or wrong, that’s perception.
From the perspective of journalists who do it every day, two points. One, broadcast (TV, radio, and some Web) media are practically in a different universe than are we of the (sniff, sniff) “old-style” print media, i.e. newspaper writers. Print journalists would argue there is far more sensationalism and unasked-for commentary on TV news than in print news.
We’re from Earth. They’re Klingons.
Which leads me to point two. Bias is as normal as human nature, try as we may to avoid it. No matter how hard any of us tries (and that includes readers, who sometimes find what they’re looking for whether or not actually present in the text), we all come with baggage, viewpoints, fears, and expectations, generally subconscious. Carefully we must guard against those to see things simply as they are, and not as we are. Still, it helps to try. It helps tremendously and journalists do have a duty to do just that with more vigilance than those in other professions.
Caveats shoved aside. Shifting to facts, according to the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and other research to answer the first question:
1. Yes, then: In 1997 a survey of newspaper staffs across the U.S. did find a 65 percent liberal tilt at large papers of 50,000-plus circulation (12 percent self-described conservatives; the rest independent). Smaller papers were about 50 percent self-described “liberal-leaning,” 23 percent conservative-leaning, and the rest independent. Note, these are large papers. Smaller papers, like smaller communities, tend to lean more conservative.
2. But not the editors: In the same survey, the numbers shifted in favor of conservatives among editorial staff. Perhaps this is easily explained by age, as editors tend to be older than most reporters and non-journalism surveys have shown people tend to wax conservative with age, at least a little more than when young.
3. Yes, but shifting right: Pew research tracked the 2012 election, finding a nationwide pro-Romney slant and a persistent negative tone for Obama throughout the campaign coverage.
4. Public divided: A Gallup poll in 2011 found 47 percent of Americans believe the media are too liberal; 13 percent say they are too conservative; 40 percent, “just about right.” According to a Christian Science Monitor Oct. 15 article, the results were similar in 2002.
In September, Gallup reported distrust of the media is at 60 percent, an all-time high. Unfortunately it didn’t distinguish between print and broadcast.
So finally, the second question: Could the “liberal media” perception — within and without — in part be a by-product of its function? A big concern civic-minded types as well as journalists have about the erosion of readership is the loss of the media’s watchdog function. Without this check-and-balance — someone unconnected to governments and major players whose job is to watch and publicly report — corrupt players are attracted to public office. Most public officials are good people, now. In human history when few or none took a daily paper, the opposite was once true.
Without oversight, bad acts go by without notice, at least for longer and with more damage. So the most important function of a healthy newspaper is to pay attention. To everything. How many of us have time to take that on ourselves?
A free press is one not only without connection to officialdom, it is one without limit of ideas. Synonyms of “liberal” include broadminded, free-thinking, and open-minded. Perhaps if most media are liberal-leaning, it is in this sense of liberal. At least that’s what reporters strive for as they gather information to report.
The media’s job in a democratic society is to put as broad a spectrum of “new”(s) out there as is possible with given resources and human capabilities. It’s left to the reader to judge its value.
Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.