A Philosopher's Blog

Media Error & Bias

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2009

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 29% of Americans believe that news organizations get their facts straight while 63% claim that news stories often are lacking in accuracy. This is a change from the results of a similar survey in 1985. In that survey, 55% regarded news stories as accurate while 34% took them to be inaccurate. The change from 1985 to 2009 has been a gradual one with people increasingly regarding the news media as lacking in accuracy.

Another interesting finding is that 26% claim that news organizations are careful to avoid politically biased reporting. 60% of those surveyed claimed that the news organizations are politically biased.

Obviously, the fact that people believe that the news organizations have problems with accuracy and bias does not prove that these problems exist. After all, what most people believe and what is actually true are two distinct things. However, it is interesting to consider why there is such distrust of the media.

One obvious possibility is that the media is prone to error and is also biased. Obviously, folks in the media make mistakes and there have been some rather famous (or infamous) cases of the media fouling up. Perhaps the best known example of this was the incident involving Dan Rather and the infamous memo.

Of course, whether or not the media has significant problems with accuracy is something that can be tested. The method is, in theory, quite simple: take the claims made by the news folks and test them objectively to see if they are accurate or not. Naturally, the implementation of this testing would require an objective testing agency.

In regards to media bias, the natural thing to do is to turn to the experts. Unfortunately, the experts disagree. For example, Eric Alterman argues that the liberal bias is a myth (What Liberal Bias?) while Bernard Goldberg contends that the bias is a fact (Bias). Fortunately, bias can also be investigated. One way to do this is to consider news reports and assess them in an objective manner for favorable and unfavorable slanting. What the news organizations report also can indicate possible bias. For example, if a new organization regularly covers misdeeds by Republicans in depth while providing little coverage of comparable misdeeds by Democrats, then there are grounds for suspecting bias.

It is, unfortunately, well established that the news media is influenced by the government and this results in biased reporting. During its first four years the Bush administration spent a quarter of a billion dollars on fake “news” about Medicare, Iraq, Social Security, and No Child Left Behind. It should be noted that the Clinton Administration was also active in manipulating the media.

In some cases biased reporting is purchased. For example,  between 2004 and 2005 three editorialists were exposed for taking money directly or indirectly from the Bush Administration to promote its policies and programs. Armstrong Williams received $200,000.

Another infamous example of government manipulating the news is how in 2007 FEMA held a “press conference” in which FEMA staff members asked the questions. The White House spokesperson replied by saying that the practice was not employed by the White House and was not something that was condoned. This reply was reported uncritically by the White House Reporters, despite the fact that the White House has done the same in the past. This might indicate incompetence on the part of reporters rather than bias, though.

Thus, the media does make errors and does suffer from bias. Of course, the question remains as to the amount of errors and the degree of bias that each specific news organization suffers from.

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