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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Is Fox News the future of news?

I’m a journalist by training. While I no longer practice that trade on a full-time basis, I still take a great interest in the field.

At this time 15 years ago, Fox News Channel didn’t exist. Now, if you look at the its viewership compared to cable news competitors CNN, MSNBC and CNBC, you’ll see that it is not only leading its competition, but crushing it.

Fox News gets accused of having a conservative bias in its reporting. Its top commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, are both very conservative and very provocative, and don’t make any bones about it. And Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and other prominent conservative political personalities make frequent guest appearances and/or have their own shows on the channel.

Many people love Fox News. Many people hate it. But there is no question people watch it. Which begs the question: is Fox News the future of news? Will news channels have to follow Fox News’ model – in terms of political bent and/or reporting style – to succeed in the current media environment?

I don’t think anyone will deny that journalism – and television journalism in particular – has changed dramatically over the decades. The days of stately, dignified legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite beaming into our living rooms each night and delivering stately, dignified news, as my parents experienced, are gone and not coming back. This satirical cartoon from JibJab (famous for their 2004 Presidential election satires) sums up the changes to news quite well, in my opinion:

There are far more messages competing for the audience’s attention than ever before. The louder and more provocative you are, the more likely you are to get noticed. And it doesn’t matter how good the substance of your message is if no one notices it.

Fox News seems to realize this. Whether you disagree with Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly or not, you can’t deny that they know how to get people to listen to what they have to say. Same with Sarah Palin. Fox News’ ratings reflect as much. And the higher your ratings are, the more you can charge for advertising, and the more money you make. With so many news media outlets now owned by major corporations with diverse holdings and profit-driven shareholders to appease, ratings, regardless of substance, are more important than ever.

As for the political slant, many accuse MSNBC, in particular its prime time hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, of having a liberal bias. Even if that is true, the fact that it trails Fox News in the ratings by a significant margin suggests that the viewing public does not buy into that bias.

All of this suggests that Fox News is on to something. Whether you never watch it or watch it every day, whether you love it or hate it, Fox News may become the model that news, or at least cable news, needs to follow.

Is television advertising dying?

One blogger that I read frequently, Rich Meyer, raised an interesting point in his most recent post about DTC marketers needing to cut spending on television advertising. That post raises an interesting implication: is television advertising dying?

Television is a one-way medium. It throws your message out in front of many people at once in the hopes that enough will see it and be convinced to buy your product. The more people who can see it (ie, the higher the TV ratings), the more expensive it is to advertise.

But people are increasingly learning about products from other customers, specifically nowadays through online media that allows customers to express their own thoughts and provide feedback. Customers are no longer dependent on what the company says in advertising and what the news media reports. And as Meyer notes, new technologies such as DVRs. mobile devices, and the posting of TV shows online (via services like Hulu) are further reducing the number of people who see television ads. Therefore, marketers have less incentive to devote their advertising budget to TV advertising.

But is TV advertising really dying? I’m not convinced. There will always be very highly-watched TV broadcasts (such as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards) where advertising can produce customers, even if they’re being driven to your business more by the creativeness or absurdity of your ad than by the product those ads are trying to sell. And when your product’s target audience is lower on the social technographics ladder, you’ll still need to use television. An example of the latter is elections; most voters tend to be older and get their information about candidates from TV, so advertising aggressively on TV is a must.

But Meyer is right that TV advertising should probably be a smaller part of your marketing budget. You need to determine just how much smaller based on who you’re serving. One set of marketing strategies certainly does not fit all.

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