A Philosopher's Blog

Media Bias

Posted in Business, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2011
FOX News Channel newsroom

If the pants are off, it gets the lead off.

It is rather common for the media to be accused of bias, usually towards the left. This seems to be obviously true of MSNBC. Fox News is, of course, not liberally biased. It is, however, clearly leaning to the right. Talk radio is generally right leaning. CNN is sometimes accused of leaning left, although most people who watch it are stuck in airports and hence their judgment is probably impaired. As such, the media does seem to have plenty of instances of bias. However, they are clearly not all liberal. Unless, of course, Fox News, talk radio and so on are excluded from the media.

While the matter of a general bias among media folk can be debated, there is a clear bias in most of the media. Namely, the media has a bias towards stories that they believe will attract viewers. This typically means stories that are sensationalistic, preferably with a sexual element or an attention grabbing crime. Such stories are covered, obviously enough, at the expense of matters that are generally far more significant. To use the most recent example, while Weiner’s misdeeds were newsworthy, his being uncovered was covered far more than it actually deserved. As Weiner himself pointed out, we are involved in three wars, unemployment is high, revolts are sweeping the middle east, and so on. However, the main focus of the media remained aimed right at Weiner’s groin (an area to which he seemed obsessed with drawing attention towards).

While it is tempting to lay the blame on the media, they are actually following a good business model: they are giving the customers what they want. The news media is a business and it makes most of its revenue through advertisement. As such, the media folks need to keep the numbers up to keep the money rolling in. What keeps the numbers up is, obviously enough, stories that are sensational, sordid, sleazy, sexual and so on. As such, the media will tend to focus on these sorts of stories because that is what people prefer. This would seem to entail that changing the media bias requires changing what the consumer wants. To be fair to the consumers, they tend to consume what is pushed towards them, so the media folks could take a more active role in serving up more significant news. The analogy to food is obvious: companies sell junk food because people want it, but people want junk food in part because the companies push it. Just as Americans need to get off the junk food, we also need to cut back on our junk news.

This is a rather challenging thing. To use another obvious analogy, trying to provide the significant news is a lot like teaching. Most people find the content of education to be far less interesting than what is going on on Facebook or what text is incoming. Just as some teachers simply give up on trying to compete, so too has much of the media.

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9 Responses

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  1. frk said, on June 23, 2011 at 8:56 am

    “they are actually following a good business model: they are giving the customers what they want”
    Your penultimate paragraph makes a good case for the argument that a truly unbiased media cannot thrive/succeed/survive if the model for business success is ‘giv[ing] the customers what they want”? I never held out much hope for bias-free news.
    You also briefly present a pretty bleak picture for our food industries and our educational system. . .

    I love the taste of a dose of reality in the morning. Nothing else in the world tastes like it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      I suspect that an unbiased media outlet that focused on significant news would not last very long as a profit making venture-at least for now. With the increasing fragmentation of the market and changes in technology, I can envision a sort of micromedia ecosystem that would support such a thing.

  2. jjm said, on June 23, 2011 at 10:24 am

    “While it is tempting to lay the blame on the media, they are actually following a good business model: they are giving the customers what they want.”


    Thank you for this article. I do agree with the general concepts in it. In addition, there is evidence to support the notion that the bias on the content of the news reflects a cognitive bias in human beings. It is not that much what we want but most what our brains are trained or wired to stick to. For example: as a society we are currently obssesed with the threat of terrorism, particularly after the vivid images of September 11 2011. But if you look at the evidence, the chances of being killed in a terrorist act are far lower than of being killed in a car accident. We are “habituated” to car accidents; we are used to them, but we are not used to nuts coming to our country and killing us. This impacts our brain in a more profound way than common car accidents or the current obesity epidemic.

    The problem I see is an ethical problem; that is why I selected your sentence on top. For me the question is ; is it ethical? is it damaging to society? how do we balance this concept with one of the most essential freedoms, the freedom of free speach?

    Let’s make an analogy based on your sentence “They are giving customers what they want” Is that ethical? Is that legal? If so, drug trafficking should provide no ethical and legal constraints. They are giving their customers what they want, what their brains are unfortunately wired to seek. So, when does an activity becomes unthetical? ilegal?

    Thanks a lot for your article

    • frk said, on June 23, 2011 at 11:23 am

      “Let’s make an analogy based on your sentence “They are giving customers what they want” Is that ethical? Is that legal? If so, drug trafficking should provide no ethical and legal constraints”

      If you can make a convincing argument that 24/7 news—which ,as opposed, say, to the supposedly “less biased” news of the Cronkite era wasn’t, as I recall, interwoven so shamelessly with looney-bin, hate-and-fear-mongering —and its bias is as harmful to society as drug trafficking, then you have an effective analogy. You’ve begun to do so in your second paragraph. Good luck with the rest. I think I could argue that either way. There is a long history of the courts determining that aspects of that basic first amendment freedom are dangerous to society and should be justly curtailed.
      Perhaps we could compare the rantings of these opinionator/gods to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. . .I hope this adds something. Anyway I’m packing now, so anything elsemay have to contribute will have to go on hold until a later date.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      I am inclined to say that it is somewhat unethical. As you note with your analogy to drug dealers, giving customers what they want can be morally questionable. To use my junk food analogy, selling junky food to people because they want it can be seen as morally questionable. While people do freely consume it, making it available does make the manufacturer and sellers parties to the injuries people are inflicting on their well being. Of course, I think that people should be free to self-inflict damage, provided that the rest of us do not have to deal with the consequences of their bad choices.

      Sticking with the fast food analogy, I would say that the media folks who serve up the junk are acting unethically to a certain degree. However, this is not something that should be outlawed. If someone wants to eat junky food or watch junky news, then they should be free to do so, even though they are making poor choices.

  3. Edward Carney said, on June 24, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Ah, one of my very favorite topics!

    I’m a little concerned, however, at your tone underlying your explanation that the news media is just following a good business model. You haven’t gone so far as to suggest that the very fact that the news media feels an obligation to follow a good business model is a problem. Indeed, you write as if to say that big business is the only thing the media ever was or ever could be. But there was a time when television news was seen as a loss-leader. Perhaps that’s a model we could strive to go back to.

    The most criticism you offer in your post is to say that the media is perhaps negligent or lazy in that it has given up on trying to compete with the spectacles and distractions that abound in a digital age. But do you really think it ought to be their role to compete with those things, rather than, say, providing the news to the best of their ability, and allowing the public to take or leave the service as they please?

  4. magus71 said, on June 24, 2011 at 2:55 am

    I don’t watch TV and I’m able to pick and choose which newspaper articles I read in full. Writers tend to be far better thinkers than those who are merely talking heads and sensationalists.

    I’ve always wondered why the media escapes the negative labels placed on other corporations. Defenders of truth vice greedy CEOs, etc.

    To me, most of the media represents an easy way for people to excuse themselves from thinking. And most TV newsbits are so lacking in deep analysis as to render them useless for drawing larger conclusions.

    I’ll stick to reading and writing.

  5. Anonymous said, on June 24, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I thought the original purpose of the media was to be a check and balance against the government. A filter in between the words of politicians and the ears of the people. In modern times I suppose this could cross over to any information that assails us such as business advertising.

  6. FRE said, on June 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I fully agree with your blog. There are additional aspects of the same problem which are equally important.

    Advertisers can also bias the news by threatening to withhold advertising. Perhaps the best example is that at one time, drug pushers, perhaps better known as cigarette advertisers, would withhold their advertising from any publication or ether media that published or aired any article on the health risks of smoking.

    During the Robber Baron era, some robber barons owned newspapers to enable them to get public support, or at least undermine efforts to restrict unethical activities.

    Some bad articles are simply the result of laziness, carelessness, or incompetence on the part of journalists.

    Also, it should be noted that some journalists do not use quotation marks the way we expect them to. Instead, what is in quotation marks is sometimes just the journalist’s understanding of what the subject said or meant.

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