IU's Marjorie Hershey says charges of media bias have become as common as campaign ads in the run-up to the midterm elections.
Hershey, a political scientist who has examined media coverage of the Trump presidency and campaigns, recently shared what social science research really tells us about media bias.
Hershey says first, media bias is in the eye of the beholder. Communications scholars have found that if you ask people in any community, using scientific polling methods, whether their local media are biased, you’ll find that about half say yes. But of that half, typically a little more than a quarter say that their local media are biased against Republicans, and a little less than a quarter say the same local media are biased against Democrats.
Hershey says research shows that Republicans and Democrats spot bias only in articles that clearly favor the other party. If an article tilts in favor of their own party, they tend to see it as unbiased. Many people, then, define “bias” as anything that doesn’t agree with their views.
Secondly, "media" is a plural word. Hershey says American party politics have become increasingly polarized in recent decades. Republicans have become more consistently conservative, and Democrats have become more consistently liberal to moderate. Not surprisingly, media outlets have arisen to appeal primarily to people who share a conservative or liberal view.
But Hershey says that doesn’t mean that “the media” are biased. There are hundreds of thousands of media outlets in the U.S., including newspapers, radio, network TV, cable TV, blogs, websites and social media. These news outlets don’t all take the same perspective on any given issue. She says if you want a very conservative or liberal news site, it is not hard to find one.
There is one form of actual media bias, Hershey says. Almost all media outlets need audiences in order to exist. Some can’t survive financially without an audience; others want the prestige that comes from attracting a big audience.
Thus, Hershey says the media define as “news” the kinds of stories that will attract an audience. That means stories that feature drama, conflict, engaging pictures and immediacy. The problem is that a focus on such stories crowds out what we need to know to protect our democracy, such as how the workings of American institutions benefit some groups and disadvantage others and in what ways our major systems – such as education, health care and national defense – function effectively or less effectively?
Hershey says these analyses are vital to citizens, but they aren’t always fun to read. So they get covered much less than celebrity scandals or murder cases – which, while compelling, don’t really affect the ability to sustain a democratic system.
Hershey says that by favoring dramatic stories, media can direct our attention away from the important systems that affect our lives. She says that isn’t the media’s fault, as we are the audience whose attention media outlets want to attract.
But as long as we think of governance in terms of its entertainment value and media bias in terms of Republicans and Democrats, Hershey says we’ll continue to be less informed than we need to be.