Partisan complaints about media bias are nothing new. Conservatives have long argued that most mainstream print and television outlets tilt left, aside from the obvious example of Fox News. Progressives counter this assertion by suggesting that, despite the dearth of conservatives among MSM journalism, the companies that run the media are ultimately beholden to capitalistic, corporate interests, which makes them inherently conservative. And around and around we go.
A story I saw reported about a week ago provides a helpful case study as to what real media bias may look like in practice. I like this example because it involves a set of underlying, indisputable facts, not an opinion-driven story. Yet, a fact-based foundation doesn’t immunize a news item from bias when the choice of how to present those facts makes all the difference.
The data in question comes from an annual survey conducted by Public Policy Polling. In it, PPP asked respondents whether they “trust” or “do not trust” different news outlets. Here’s a link to the full report, but allow me to hit a few highlights before I move on to the media’s response to same. This is a summary of the findings:
1. The outlets mentioned by the survey were ABC, CBS, CNN, Comedy Central (meaning Stewart and Colbert), Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, and PBS.
2. Of those, the only one that had higher “trust” than “distrust” ratings was PBS. PBS received a 52% “trust” rating. Fox News was second, with 41%. NBC was third with 39%.
3. PBS finished second in the “most-trusted” category, with 13%. Fox was the runaway winner for “most trusted” with 34%.
4. Fox was also the easy winner in the “least-trusted” category, with 39%. MSNBC was second with 14%.
5. The largest gap between “most-trusted” and “least-trusted” was Comedy Central, which was at -7%. On the other side, PBS was at +12%.
6. Overall, Comedy Central and Fox News tied for the highest “do not trust” percentage, at 46%.
Were I to produce an objective assessment of that data, I think the primary focus would be that Americans are broadly reluctant to trust television news. More specifically, the trust levels were dependent upon the ideological bent of a channel—not so much of leaning one way or the other, but whether there was a perceived slant at all. While this increased levels of distrust, it also increased levels of trust among like-minded folks.
Here’s how various outlets, some openly left-leaning, some not, reported this story:
“Fox News Credibility at ‘Record Low‘” – Huffington Post
“PPP: Trust in Fox News hits record low” – Politico
“Distrust of Fox News Hits Record High” – Daily Beast
“Almost Everybody has made up their minds about Fox News” – New York Magazine
“Why Republicans Can’t Stay Mad at Fox News” – Time Magazine (online)
“Five Reasons Why Fewer People Trust Fox News Than Ever Before” – ThinkProgress
“U. S. voters lose trust in Fox News” – The Guardian
Summarizing the above, the outlets that chose to report on this story quite obviously focused on Fox News. Furthermore, most did so from an overwhelmingly negative perspective, burying positive information related to FNC’s “trusted” rating later in the article (if it was mentioned it at all). A few, like Salon, tried to be somewhat-even-handed in their presentation, although the focus was still on Fox.
To be fair to these outlets, the original report’s narrative portion showed bias against FNC from the outset. The PPP summary stated that “Just like its actual ratings, Fox News has hit a record low in the four years that we’ve been doing this poll. 41% of voters trust it to 46% who do not.” (emphasis mine)
So, not only does the PPP throw in a snarky line about FNC’s declining popularity, it also repeats the mistake of failing to mention that Fox is the most-trusted non-public TV news source as well.
And that reveals an even deeper problem: PPP itself has been accused of liberal bias, and even a credible source like 538blog’s Nate Silver admits that PPP is an outfit that displays a “Democratic-leaning” slant in its polling.
When we speak of “media bias,” we often conjure images of a Republican politician being made to look like a fool, while an equivalent Democrat is given much more leeway on silly comments or certain policy choices.
While those concerns may be valid in isolated cases, those sorts of boogeymen aren’t what comes to mind for me when I speak of biases within the media. It isn’t so much that there is an editorial decision to promote progressive or conservative ideas (although that is certainly the case for a few of the outlets mentioned above). It’s more that there is a cumulative effect of slight biases in presentation of facts that wind up manifesting themselves in reporting.
To wit, there’s no disputing the underlying polling data in play, here. I have no reason to believe the PPP methodology was in any way flawed or compromised. If we take that as a given, then, there can be no question that Fox News is more distrusted than trusted.
But the presentation of that data—namely, omitting in some cases how trusted FNC is, or that another outlet is just as distrusted, or that many other networks have worse “trusted” to “distrusted” margins—is where the “salting” of the story begins. Those decisions regarding presentation function to be a form of veiled (or possibly not-so-veiled) criticism of Fox or of conservatives while maintaining the pretense of objective reporting because the story is still anchored in “facts.”
Conscious or subconscious acts of omission may generate a story that is more amusing or compelling or meaningful to the person reporting that story, but that often reflects a sort of bias. I think that’s the case here. Most of the authors and their respective outlets listed above felt that the most noteworthy aspect of the data was that Fox had such a high negative rating (again, the same as Stewart and Colbert’s), probably emanating from disdain or skepticism related to Fox News.
So, those who worry about ideological outlets crafting slanted stories from whole cloth to make their opponents look bad probably overstate that case. Generally speaking, the problem isn’t stories designed as attack pieces purely to discredit the other side (although Gawker and a few others surely delve into that territory). The much more common reflection of bias—particularly from outfits that don’t openly embrace a particular ideology—comes when content-producers filter facts in such a way as to construct and convey an implicit positive or negative connotation toward policies, philosophies, or entities the author favors or disfavors.
Finally, another manifestation of an undercurrent of bias is just how consistently this story is presented the way most of the outlets above do. Try searching for “PPP,” “media,” and “trust” without using any network-specific search terms. You’ll notice that nearly every story returned by the search leads with either a negative comment directed specifically at Fox News, or a comment about the relationship between polarization / partisanship and cable news (indirectly referring to FNC).
The “opposite” version of what this story might look like is provided only by a few openly conservative sources, such as the Washington Times. That outlet led with a headline of “Liberals trust Comedy Central more than Fox, new poll finds.” This is again factually correct, but it also reflects a specific filtration of the facts. Having said that, the Times does better than most at presenting a complete picture of the data mined by the survey.
What is perhaps most relevant of all is how modest the difference is between the openly-left-leaning sites and the “unbiased” major outlets. Whereas the handful of right-leaning operations could clearly be identified as such with the emphasis they put on certain elements of the report, the elements emphasized by the progressive outlets were more or less the same ones addressed in the greatest detail by Time or Newsweek’s online editions. Speaking personally, I think that indicates the reality that the “midpoint” of American journalism is somewhat left-of-center.
But maybe that’s just a matter of perspective.