What is the media’s responsibility with neutral, objective reporting? There seems to be an unwritten belief that media must be unbiased and objective. But where does this idea come from? Is it better to have a news outlet like Fox News which claims to be “fair and balanced” yet is center-right, or to have a news outlet like MSNBC which makes neither claim to neutrality nor bias, yet is center-left? It can be safely said that media bias is likely a reflection of consumer bias.
At some point in our cultural history, the idea of objective news reporting was created. Whether this idea was created as a way to further democracy in the Western world, or as a way to manufacture consent and control the masses (Herman & Chomsky, 1988), will probably be debated for centuries. Conventional wisdom in America is that Fox News has a center-right, or conservative, bias and that its “Fair and Balanced” tag line is more of a marketing tool than an ethical guideline. This same wisdom claims that major media outlets such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and “the paper of record,” The New York Times have a center-left, or liberal, bias.
Yet, despite the claims of liberal media bias, research does not fall in line with popular belief.
“Whether the news media have a liberal bias has interested politicians, journalists, scholars, and the public. Many seem to believe that a political bias exists. According to a … survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2002), 47% of those who answered a question on media bias believed news organizations in general are politically biased in their reporting. In comparison, 35% of respondents disagreed” (Lee, 2005, p. 43).
Whether news media contains more liberal or conservative bias is indiscernible and a topic of debate among scholars (Lee, 2005).
What does this all mean? Meaning is in the ear of the beholder, literally. “…[P]eople‘s perceptions of trust in media and bias in news are related to their political predispositions” (Vraga, Tulley, & Rojas, 2009, p. 71). Thus, there is not a whole lot that journalists can do to reduce perceived bias by consumers. However, this does not mean that perceived media bias has to remain forever. Media literacy education may be the answer.
Media literacy education is designed to help consumers understand how media is constructed and consumed. It does this by teaching people “how to decode contextual media messages in film, music, television, corporate advertising and communications technology to understand better the range of influence and impact the media have on their lives” (Vraga, Tulley, & Rojas, 2009, p. 71). Does media literacy education really work?
“[The] findings lend partial support to the idea that news media literacy can affect perceptions of the media. While exposure to a news media literacy presentation decreased perceptions of bias in the subsequent news story, it did not appear to increase trust…. The analysis of the very liberal and conservative clarifies these results: these groups reported different levels of bias and trust based on their political predispositions. When dealing with the media and political issues, political ideology plays a central role in how individuals respond to a media message, as well as to a presentation about the media” (Vraga, Tulley, & Rojas, 2009, p. 77).
Clearly, the claim of objectivity, or lack thereof, matters little to news media consumers. Does news media have to be neutral and objective? I think not. What is important, however, is that consumers are knowledgeable regarding what they are consuming and how to best interpret and understand it.
Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books.
Lee, T.-T. (2005). The Liberal Media Myth Revisited: An Examination of Factors Influencing Perceptions of Media Bias. Journal of Boradcasting and Electronic Media , 43-64.
Vraga, E. K., Tulley, M., & Rojas, H. (2009). Media Literacy Training Reduces Perception of Bias. Newspaper Research Journal , 68-81.