Is the news media actually biased? Or is the other side just not captivating enough?

One of the frequent complaints from this country’s political right is that the news media has a liberal bias. The political left sometimes says that the news media, specifically FOX News, has a conservative bias. Watching the TODAY show on NBC one morning this week, and seeing former House Speaker (and possible 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich) brought on to criticize President Obama’s response to the crisis in Libya without anyone from the other side to offer rebuttal certainly does bring the former complaint into question.

Or does it? Does the news media as a whole actually have a liberal or conservative slant? Or does it just seem that way? Does the media actually favor one side of the political spectrum over the other? Or does it simply give more face time to whichever side gets the most people to tune in? I’m increasingly wondering if it’s the latter.

The idea of individual media outlets being liberal or conservative editorially is nothing new. But that decision has been driven by a desire to stand out from the crowd, to be different. Say what you want about FOX News, for example, but it definitely stands out from the crowd and gets people to pay attention, and its ratings reflect as much.

Ratings (or circulation in print media and pageviews in online media) drive what you can charge for advertising. The higher the ratings, the more advertisers will be willing to pay, and the more money you make. When your parent company’s board of directors also controls holdings in a variety of other industries, it is even more likely to value short-term profits above all else, and the more profits you can show them, the happier the board will be with you.

Getting ratings/circulation/pageviews in the news business these days requires more than simply reporting what’s going on. You need powerful voices and presentation. You need to be provocative. TODAY’s producers probably brought on Newt Gingrich that day because they knew he’d say something provocative that would get people talking about TODAY. Those people then tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

Why doesn’t the other side get put on to rebut? It’s likely because, in TODAY’s opinion, it won’t do anything to boost ratings further.

If those on the left wonder why people like John McCain can get on the Sunday talk shows frequently while major figures on the political left can’t, this is probably why. The Democratic Party’s political leaders are, in a word, boring. Even if Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer and Tim Kaine have the facts on their side (sometimes they do, sometimes not), they don’t know how to push the public’s buttons the way their Republican counterparts do. The audience quickly gets bored and turns the channel. And ratings fall.

The media does not have a liberal bias or a conservative bias. It has a RATINGS bias – a desire to get as many people to pay attention as possible while expending as few resources as possible. If only one side of an argument can make its case in sufficiently captivating fashion to boost ratings, only that side will get air time.

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About Joshua Brett
I am a native of Chicago, but have lived on the East Coast for almost 20 years. After starting my career as a news reporter, I moved into healthcare marketing, first with a small hospital, then with a small pharmaceutical development company and now with a chain of businesses that are working to improve access to the health care system. In May 2011, I completed my Masters Degree in Communication Management at Temple University, and I enjoy helping businesses, particularly healthcare ones, identify, tell and leverage their stories to achieve their business goals. My related interests are in messaging and framing in politics and in the use of social media platforms (including blogs similar to this one) by the healthcare industry to engage patients directly, drive them to healthcare providers and make them more educated consumers when they do so. Unlike my previous, disorganized, scattershot attempt at blogging, I hope to make this attempt more focused. We'll see what happens.

4 Responses to Is the news media actually biased? Or is the other side just not captivating enough?

  1. While you make a compelling case, I must disagree. I a free lance writer with a degree in science. I have sent out over 200 edit queries with my scientific refutation of global warming theory. I can’t get an editor to even read it much as less publish it. This is just another in the myriad examples of liberal mindset in the media.

    Printed canons of journalistic integrity all state that you must present both sides of the story without bias. Editors flout those ethics with impunity. The reason is, is that they are all VOLUNTARY. There are no journalisitic police to make them do right. In other professions, violations of ethics rightly gets you thrown out of the profession, but not journalims.

    Editor and Publisher (the trade journal for newspapers) had an article a couple of years ago by a guy named Steve Outing that suggested that newspapers completely abdicate journalistic integrity and just report global warming theory as fact. I sent a furious letter to the editor that he did not even bother to respond to.

    There are many polls out there that indicate that the practitioners of journalism are overwhelmingly liberal.

    John Wilder

  2. forgive the typos, I was typing fast and accidentally hit the send button before I could correct them.

  3. Krista says:

    You make a good point, Josh. With regard to broadcast media, there definitely seems to be a priority on ratings than integrity. Having worked in PR, I also suspect that Mr. Gingrich’s appearance may have been unopposed for a reason–to keep the spotlight on him. It’s all about perception and how the news media decide to frame that perception for the masses. Unfortunately, they also sacrifice objectivity in reporting and advocate for opinion for their viewers.

  4. Tony P says:

    Josh,

    This is a very thought-provoking article (though I would challenge your claim that John McCain speaks for the “right”). However, it is hard for me to see the major news services, particularly the AP, as anything but promoters for left-leaning agendas and more of editorialists than true journalists.

    Two trends I find particularly disturbing – and I understand the reason for both – are the lack of analysis and challenging of “facts” and the tendency to treat anything said or published from “sources” as legitimate information rather than, as it turns out many times, slanted spin. Due to the time restraints of journalism, and the need to get things out in “real-time” (as you talked about in the Giffords blog), there is little historical research and analysis to determine whether quotes or information are accurate. And with regard to information from “sources”, since what I call the Clinton 90’s (and probably longer), newsmakers have been able to feed only those outlets are reporters that are most supportive with information while ignoring any challenging or difficult media outlets. At the same time, “news agencies” on both sides of the political spectrum, have tailored their message to what they feel their audience wants. Sadly, discourse and debate are almost non-existent. When is the last time you remember seeing a panel on any of the “cable news” networks with a balanced panel rather than three (or more) proponents on one side to a single opposing view?

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