Here’s a quick poll: Are the media in the United States biased? If your answer is “It depends,” congratulations. You have a promising future as a political scientist.
I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about media bias over the years and a few months ago found a 2018 book by Texas Christian University professor Adam Shiffer entitled Evaluating Media Bias that is the first systematic social science investigation of the subject I’ve seen. His first contribution is to give a working definition: “Partisan bias occurs when news content deviates from an ideal, to the benefit of one side of the political divide.” (40) He finds little evidence of this type of bias.
However, he looks at another type, a bias that is the product of the media’s business model. He says: “Unfortunately politics is undramatic when it works well. Hence, the types of political phenomenon that do fit a dramatic arc receive excessive coverage.” (65) Furthermore, “the media have only one incentive: To earn advertising revenue by telling good stories.” (98)
They convey political reality through the warped prism of news-judging criteria such as negativity, scandal, drama, novelty, simplicity and personalization. Yes, they do stem in part from the media’s perception of consumer taste. But ‘perception’ is the key word. It is still the media not only perceiving but also deciding that such concerns override all others in news judgments.” (110)
This is a good book – on this subject it’s the best I’ve read, and I recommend it. But his conclusions don’t go far enough. I think there is a bias in the national outlets for American mass media – the legacy TV networks and the news networks, the so-called national newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and the most influential journals of opinion -- but the bias is not ideological. It’s social.
A disproportionate percent of people who report, who write, who produce news and opinion for national media are not like you and me. They are disproportionately from privileged backgrounds. They are disproportionately from top colleges and universities. They have spent much of their lives in an elite bubble that skews their perspective about everyone and everything else. Taking Schiffer’s main point to its logical conclusion: the elite-dominated national media decide what taste the consumer (you and I) has and feeds it, whether or not it is truly what we want to consume, and certainly not whether it is the most nourishing.
This is not a criticism. This is not a judgment. This is a fact and it’s a fact about both liberals and conservatives in the media. The people who report and produce the news and analysis on Fox have much more in common with the people who report and produce the news and analysis on MSNBC and CNN than they do with you and me. They don’t know so much about your and my opinions and needs and desires. They grew up in and continue to live in a different world. Ironic, isn’t it? Like so many divides in American society, media bias is about social class, not politics. I’ll describe the research I did on this topic in a future commentary.