Photo Credit: New York Magazine
Stop the presses! Breaking News! The incessant debate over ‘Media Bias’ will be put to rest today. Proof has finally been found demonstrating, without a shred of doubt, as to the biased nature of the media. Get ready to rush to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and share this with the world. Everyone must know, so to protect themselves from the skewed agendas being promulgated by media outlets all over the world. Surprisingly, in a world hungering for facts, the evidence is rather simplistic. Understanding two truths will provide clarity to the long-debated question of media bias.
Truth #1: News outlets are staffed and run by human beings. (At least for now.)
Truth #2: Human beings are biased.
So, I am going to make an assumption as to the reaction in my reader’s heads right now. I envisage something along the lines of what I call ‘my fifth grader reaction,’ which can best be described as an odd expression and then responding with, “No Dip!” and walking away to go play on an iPad. (For children of the 80’s and 90’s that is translated to “No Duh!” and walking outside to go poke things with sticks, or whatever we did for fun before they invented Apps.) Clearly, we all get it. So, what is the big deal?
Here is the big deal. We have reached a bit of a crossroads in our country. The President of the United States is singling out media outlets as “Fake News,” many media outlets appear to be more concerned with ratings and clicks than with the substance of their stories, and reality has skewed more towards a satirical representation of itself. If you add to this mix the overwhelming amount of information available, literally, in the palm of our hands, the incessant ‘noise’ makes it very difficult to really know what is happening.
To truly understand, we must first explore bias. As this is being written, there are an estimated 7,481,464,500 people living on this planet. (Of course, as you read this, the aforementioned population estimate will be incorrect. To see newest data click HERE) We can derive a few conclusions from that number, but the most important deduction for this blog is that there are almost 7.5 billion different perceptions as to the true reality of our world. 7.5 billion distinct Egos and Ids, all working to survive and thrive on the planet Earth. 7.5 billion lives shaped by the demographics of their existence. The gist of the matter at hand is to realize 7.5 billion people “see” the world through a lens shaped by their own life experience. Some may see the world in a similar manner to the way you see it and others may see the world quite a bit differently.
These unique life experiences are shaped by various internal and external factors acting upon our lives. Did an individual grow up in an urban or rural environment? Did they grow up in poverty or luxury? Who were their role models? What is the prevailing culture of their home and community? The answer to these, and hundreds of other questions, helps to shape the mental lens in which a person views the world. It is your very own personal viewfinder that captures the external world and displays it for our internal world to analyze and judge.
If this all appears a bit convoluted, the idea of individual bias becomes even more complicated when you factor in overt and implicit biases. An overt bias is one that is readily recognizable. You might not like peanut butter, or wearing yellow clothing. You are consciously aware of your bias, and in the case of certain prejudices, might even work to reduce the impact the bias makes on your life. It is the implicit biases that really work against us. Implicit biases exist on a subconscious level and alter the way we view the world without us even being aware. For a 2013 article on boston.com, Boston Globe writer Carolyn Y. Johnson interviewed Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji. Banaji, with the help of two other psychologists, developed the Implicit Association Test. This test is designed to help bring to light our own hidden biases which exert subtle control over our perceptions of people, our interpretation of situations, and how we react to them. I encourage you to take the test to find where your brain is creating social blind spots.
For those interested, you can take the test by clicking Bias Test
Read Ms. Johnson’s article here: Banaji Interview
“So, what does this have to do with the media?” you find yourself asking. I am glad you ask. Let us take a moment to thoroughly analyze a news event.
Below I have developed a flow chart to help explore the creation of news.
- Something happens: An event occurs. If event is witnessed, proceed to number 2. If it is not witnessed, I guess it is not news. The End.
- People witness the event: Each bystander and those people involved see the event unfold through their own personal lens, interpreting the event with their own conscious and subconscious biases. If witnesses of event think the event is noteworthy, they might care about it and be willing to speak to media, proceed to number 3. If they do not hang around and instead decide to go get a snack, I guess it is not news. The End.
- Employee of a media organization discovers event: Individual decides if they, with their own conscious and subconscious biases, should investigate the event. If they decide yes, proceed to number 4. If they decide to not investigate, I guess it is not news. The End.
- Employee of media organization presents story to editor or producer: Producer/Editor decides, with their own conscious and subconscious biases, if the story will drive ratings/clicks and/or if fits with the narrative of the media organization. If they decide yes, proceed to number 5. If they decide no, I guess it is not news. The End.
- Consumers watch/read/listen to the news story: Consumers digest the information presented and, with their own conscious and subconscious biases, interpret the meaning of the news story. If they agree with the presentation of the information it is news. If they disagree, they complain about the manipulation of the news by a clearly biased media.
This goes back to the age old riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” If we were paying attention in science class we know matter, when it collides with other matter, creates vibrations which might be interpreted as sounds. But, reality tells us, even if people were there to hear the vibrations, they would probably argue as to the nature of the sounds. Some might think the crashing tree fell because it was leaning to the left, others might think the tree fell because it was right leaning. In the end, the tree will probably end up as a paper towel.
So readers, I must now ask, ”What are we to do?” A favorite author of mine, Terry Goodkind, penned, “Don’t think of the problem, think of the solution.” We should take to heart Mr. Goodkind’s sage advice. Do not continue to rail against the imperfect media. Do not complain incessantly of media bias. I think Julie Mason, @juliemason, the host of the Press Pool on SiriusXM communicated the solution best when she tweeted, “Fretting endlessly about “bias” is really a dim occupation. Maybe read a variety of things and become a wise, informed person.”
We are all aware that every media outlet has its own agenda. Some media outlets, as most of us are aware, are more overt in displaying their biases. However, we must work to understand that all news is colored with bias to some degree. Do not be mentally lazy and run to your favorite social media outlet to compose a rant every time you see a news story told from a perspective you do not agree with. Learn the biases, read different accounts of events, and make your own decisions. Recognize the differences between information and ‘infotainment’. Ask yourself, “From which perspective is this story being told?” Take these lessons to heart and you just might be able to defeat the evil scourge of a biased media.
(Note: This blog was composed by a human author with inherent biases. Please be aware and take all necessary precautions when reading. Thank You.)