This overview begins by talking about the political spectrum in the US and then describes the various biases of different news outlets. Attention is paid to different expressions and types of bias. After the relationship between politics and mass media is more fully understood, we will look at the difficulties of using mass media as a means of informing the public about scientific findings.
In the early decades of the US, media outlets were very outspoken about their political affiliations. People who thought a certain way knew which paper to read to have their views reinforced and opinions validated. Newspapers were free from governmental mandates about partisanship for many years, until the Fairness Doctrine was introduced as part of the 1927 Radio Act. The Fairness Doctrine required radio stations (and TV stations a bit later) holding FCC-issued broadcast licenses to (a) devote some of their programming to controversial issues of public importance and (b) allow the airing of opposing views on those issues.
This meant that programs on politics were required to include opposing opinions on the topic under discussion. Broadcasters had an active duty to determine the spectrum of views on a given issue and include those people best suited to representing those views in their programming. The Fairness Doctrine was later eliminated in 1987 under the Reagan administration. Since then, some news outlets have become markedly more partisan.
A Political Sliding Scale
Politics generally happens on a sliding scale encompassing left-wing, centrist, and right-wing ideologies. Where people fall on this scale pre-determines much of how they perceive, understand, and report on world events.
To be clear there are political beliefs that do not fit neatly onto a scale such as this, so please don’t view this as the end all be all of ideologies. However, generally speaking this framework holds up in much of the world. The qualities embodied by the left side of the scale are liberalism and collectivism, with an increasing reliance on government to provide for its citizens as it approaches communism on the extreme left. The qualities of the right side of the scale are conservatism and individualism with increasing reliance on corporations to provide for the needs of its citizenry.
People and/or organizations who want for society to move in one direction or the other (or to stay the same!) will try to influence mass media coverage of world events in order to represent their particular ideology favorably. For instance, a libertarian think tank will try to prevent a government solution to a problem at all costs, and a liberal organization will be much more likely to focus on how a corporation is harming the environment rather than how it is lowering unemployment. These stories become the evidence that society uses to debate the best way forward (or backward!).
The political divide between individuals and organization is the crucial backdrop to understanding the motivations for the way world events are discussed and portrayed.
A News Media Sliding Scale
Further complicating matters is the fact that news media themselves operate on two different sliding scales. The first is one of bias, and the second is one of quality. This infographic does a fair job of representing both.
Check out another useful infographic on media bias.
What Are We up Against?
If we are to understand this chart, we must ask exactly what determines whether something is simple or complex, biased or objective. good or bad? Since Donald Trump’s election, we have heard a lot about “fake news.” Though fake news is a problem, it is not necessarily THE problem. The problem is the lack of objectivity among both creators and users of information, a lack which manifests itself on a sliding scale that looks something like this:
On one end of the spectrum we have the gold standard of objective reporting in which a detached, impartial reporter posts a completely neutral recitation of illuminating facts through which a completely rational readership may choose the best course of action. This isn’t possible, of course, but it serves as a model to which people should (and professional journalists DO) aspire.
Less desirable than the perfect world is one in which authors, reporters, and/or their publishers have specific degrees of bias towards their respective ideologies and arguments. Ideally, they would be up front about their biases, but often, that is not the case. Biased reporting may come in the form of words or images that emotionally manipulate readers and/or viewers. Evaluating sources for bias can be taught, but people should also be aware that biases can be masked by false balance and framing.
False balance is when reporters take a tone of neutrality by attempting to treat two sides of a controversy or argument with equal validity, even when they are inequitable when all of the underlying differences are considered. For instance, when the vast preponderance of evidence shows that global warming is happening and indicates with very high probability that the cause is human activity, sources giving equal time and word count to the few who deny it obscure the true picture of the scientific community.
Sources may also express bias by framing the discussion. As a window allows people to view only part of the landscape outside, so does framing limit how information is perceived. For instance, an event, decision, or policy may be discussed and evaluated only on the metric of one particular party’s interest, such as an editorial critiquing an Environmental Protection Agency report for its impact on loggers while ignoring the big picture of its environmental aspects.
On the far-end of the spectrum is fake news, which to be completely clear, is not news. It is completely fabricated but often truthful-seeming propaganda created for the sole purpose of generating ad revenue for websites. The unfortunate by-product of this is that the readers of said websites are misinformed and are destined to become even more misinformed as they keep returning to similar sites and having their biases reinforced with untruths. To read more about this sliding scale and what to do about it, visit LIS101.com.
To read more about the problematic nature of mass media in the US, it is instructive to read Peter Vanderwicken’s “Why the News is Not the Truth.” Vanderwicken highlights the conflicts between government and business in shaping what we see on the news every night and how we perceive it. He notes coolly that, “news can change perceptions, and perceptions often become reality.”
The Process of Science
Given this complicated backdrop, it is no wonder that something as intrinsically complicated as science is often misconstrued. Napa Valley College Library graciously shared with LIS101 its page about the scientific method, which will refresh readers on the traditional steps. To read a more explicit example of the scientific method in action, one can trace the history of the science of global warming here. But as all practicing scientists know, the process is usually a lot messier and involves a great deal of iteration and reiteration. University of California at Berkeley provides a reminder of how long and drawn out the process often is. Given the long and often circuitous process of science, it is not uncommon to see headlines and mainstream stories that utterly confuse the relevance or findings of a study. For instance, some readers may recall reading reports of a study that touted the health benefits of smelling farts. Articles about this finding went viral, garnered lots of clicks and shares and in turn generated a lot of ad revenue for the story’s carriers. Less attention was paid later when the debunking articles began to appear: No, Smelling Farts Isn’t Good for You.
Even though sometimes science reporters miss the importance of a story or misinterpret it (badly!), it is important that scientists keep up their work and that media outlets try their hardest to fairly and accurately present all that goes into their work. Consider just how much work goes into even the shortest story about a science topic:
Science is Not as Cute as Babies
If we recognize that we, as media consumers, have biases, and that they, as media producers, have biases, and also that science is extremely complicated to cover in a short news story, then we start to see the depth of the problem. To further complicate these matters is the nature of our profit-driven mass media channels. Sensational stories about popular or controversial people always garner more media attention than more difficult topics, such as science. This disparity very much skews peoples’ worldviews and awareness of current events. Watch for example the difference between the amount of time spent on climate change and the amount spent on the death of model Anna Nicole Smith:
More recently, according to Media Matters, news coverage of Baby Archie, who is seventh in line of succession to become King of England, received more coverage in one week than climate change did in all of 2018.
Other Factors and Actors
But the problem is not just that the media omits or miscommunicates important scientific information. While media outlets have an overriding interest in covering popular, accessible stories and may not dedicate sufficient time to report the meaning of any given piece of science, there are other forces that shape how science is covered and understood (or not!). Advertisers, marketers, public relations experts, think tanks, lobbyists, activists, and special interest organizations all try to influence what is covered and how it is covered. For instance, conservative think tanks who seek to cloud the discussion about global warming are following the same playbook that they used to deny the link between smoking and cancer. By calling for the use of “sound science,” they cast doubt upon existing science (which is already quite sound). This phrase, in turn, became a ubiquitous conservative talking point about global warming.
In 2006, Dr. Francesca Grifo, a spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists, talked with Illinois Public Radio about how the Bush administration distorted science to justify its policies:
Thus, unfortunately, the coverage of science is influenced by many different actors, all of which may impact the accuracy of the public’s scientific understanding.This overview has introduced you to just a few of the many reasons that politics, science, and media interact with less than optimal results.