There is no denying the problem of media bias today; the way the media presents information to the public changes the outlook of many people, and can have large impacts on elections and other political matters. The media, specifically cable news networks, continue to skew information or simply lie to their viewers to enforce what they think is right. This school of thought, which has been adopted by almost every cable network, puts truth secondary to opinion, making all of America believe to be in the right, while on opposing sides of a problem. However, the primary reason why this problem is so dangerous is not because of its effect on the people today, but because it will continue to grow, and will be impossible to stop.
My Interest in the Topic
I am personally connect to this topic through my family, specifically, my sister. My sister is 21 years old and has declared a major of journalism at New York University. Over this winter break, when she was visiting home, I had many discussion with her and my grandparents about the political state of America, in which she would criticize Fox News for being bias and lying. While I do believe that Fox News is clearly allied with the Republicans, I also think there are more instances of media bias, on both sides of the political spectrum, that my sister chooses to ignore.
Additionally, I am interested in exploring this topic because of the extreme accusations of “fake news” and “propaganda” within the government, and want to see if that is actually the case. There also seems to be a strong correlation between which news source a person watches and their political views, and I want to explore and maybe find out if one causes the other.
To read my full interest essay click here!
Media Bias in History
The history of media bias in the United States is long and convoluted, with ups and downs in regard to the level of partisanship based upon time period, along with multiple events being affected by it. As one might be able to guess, American media bias begins nearly with the start of American media in 1690 with a newspaper in Boston named Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick (Potter). Government officials controlled the rhetoric of the brief political announcements in the papers that the public would then absorb (Leonard 17). Furthermore the government, by using the fear of being shut down, directed the newspapers’ entries away from home and towards Europe, causing the American people, seen as a positive to authorities, to give very little feedback or criticism regarding government affairs (Leonard 17).
Leading up to the American revolution, the media began to show its first signs of bias based upon personal values. It is said that by this point in time “most newspapers had clear affiliations” (Ladd 31), those affiliations being for independence or against it. The end of the revolutionary war marked the start of the Partisan Era in the press, in which “newspapers would… serve the goals of [the] political elites” (Ladd 31). The era was the first time in history that press and party were very deeply associated. Many newspapers were self-proclaimed “organ[s] of the government” (Ladd 35) and, by the time of George Washington’s first term, editors of top newspapers in Washington were receiving subsidies from the National Treasury so the government could “keep control of the paper” (Ladd 35).
The true effect and power of the press can be seen during these years. When Federalist John Adams won the election of 1796, 80% of newspapers were in support of the Federalists (Ladd 37). After recognizing the importance of media support, the Anti-Federalist newspapers nearly doubled from 1798 to 1800. Due to the growing Anti-Federalist support in the media, and since the Federalists new the importance and impact of media, the government passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which the government used to suppress Anti-Federalist news sources (Ladd 37). However, despite the suppression, Thomas Jefferson, an Anti-Federalist, won the election in 1800, which proves the impactfulness of expanding upon their reach in the press. By 1861 however, federal subsidies of newspapers had been mostly terminated, and partisan media was dying out (Ladd 46). Many editors deliberately avoided blind partisanship, like that in the election of 1828, while still maintaining a slight opinion on political issues, and slowly changing to become less and less biased.
The media remained this way for many years thereafter, due to professionalization, the act of raising required qualifications, and due to the creation of norms that journalists stood by (Ladd 74). The progression of technology, specifically the radio, further encouraged nonpartisan reports, so that they could reach more people (Ladd 97). The problem of strong media bias reaching a large number of people only returned in the 1990s and early 2000s, due to the political parties dramatically repolarizing, with more people identifying as either far left or right, and more opinionated TV programs, such as Fox News and CNN, being founded.
If you would like to read a longer, in-depth retelling of the history of the media click here!
Media Bias Today: Where It Is and How It Got Here
The modern era of the media begins in the early 1990s, with the repolarization of the political parties, and subsequently the repolarization of the media. The start of this era began with the founding of “all-news cable channel[s]” (Ladd 97), such as Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and CNBC, all of which are among the biggest news channels today (Ladd 97). Predictably, since the beginning of cable news, the number of Americans watching these television sources has grown astronomically, with over 60% of Americans getting their news from cable television (Mitchel, Amy, et. al). The driving factor of this increase in viewership since 1990 has been the polarization of the political parties. Since 1999, Democrats’ and Republicans’ beliefs of what the nation’s top priorities should be have diverged greatly (Jones). For example, over the past two decades, Democrats began caring more about healthcare, climate change, and the poor, while the Republicans focused on military, terrorism, and the budget deficit (Jones). With the distinct and varying views between the two political parties, many people were looking for a news source in which they could be informed on the topics that concerned them. This beginning of political polarization of the media was the time at which the news channels saw the opportunity to increase income and viewership by attaching itself to certain values over others.
The first cable channel to adopt this tactic was Fox News, and it was an immediate boost for the network (Ladd 98). In the late 1990s, Fox News began to adhere to conservative America by hosting political talk shows with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, two Republicans who expressed the news in a very opinionated manner (Ladd 98). While this change at Fox News obviously drove away the more liberal viewers, it led to a huge number of conservatives to watch the program. By 2004, “22% of Americans reported getting most of their news from Fox” (Ladd), making it the most popular news source at the time. Additionally, the ratings of the Fox News were better than the other the channels’ combined (Ladd 98). This quickly led, in the next few years, to the other channels adapting this biased and opinionated approach to news (Ladd 98). By the end of the 2010s, one study found that “those planning to vote for Democratic candidates constituted 84% of MSNBC’s viewers, but only 5% of Fox’s” (Ladd 98), which exemplifies how each news source has and adheres to an audience. This state of the media is the one that America has today, and media bias is as prevalent as ever.
Look at the image above. Which news source do you watch? Does its bias surprise you? Answer in the comments below!
In the present day, mainstream media news channels vary in the level of partisan bias; however, they all lean, at least slightly, to one side of the political spectrum. The effects of these opinionated segments in the media are extremely powerful. Fox News, being the biggest news source, consistently having 2.35 million viewers compared to MSNBC’s 1.64 million and CNN’s 1.04 million (Otterson) and being the most biased (“Media Bias Chart: Version 4.0”), changes a vast number of Americans’ thinking, causing them to be and vote more conservatively. In a study done by Stanford, Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu find that Fox News added 3.59 points to the Republican vote in 2004 and 6.34 points to the Republican vote in 2008 (Gregory and Yurukoglu). Others who conducted a study in order to find out the effect of Fox News on voting in 1996 and 2000 say that “Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican” (DellaVigna and Kaplan), and that number will only grow with their increasing audience (DellaVigna and Kaplan). Therefore, due to the effect on the population being so large, media bias, specifically from Fox News, has a huge effect in elections and is very much helping Republicans hold office.
If you want to read a more in-depth examination, with multiple examples and expanded ideas, click here!
There are multiple theoretical solutions to the problem at hand; however, those solutions expect the best out of people, and assume that the population will do what is morally right, which is not always true. The first solution that all of the people could do to stop media bias is rather simple and obvious, and that is to stop watching bias news sources, preferably by turning to an unbiased news sources. However, one might be able to see why this plan is unrealistic: those on the left or right do not want to recognize their own bias, but instead, whenever they turn on the news, feel as though they are right and that their opinions hold merit. For this reason, people will remain with the news source they trust, even if they have been told that the information they receive from it is false. Reversely, instead of pushing people away towards a certain source, a solution could be to watch both sides of the political spectrum and, from there, formulate an unbiased recounting of what happened inside one’s head. However, the same problem arises: people do not want to be wrong, so they would see one source, the one aligning with their views, as truth, and the other as false. The only action that people can realistically take is to educate themselves on the bias that the news source they watch has. While most might disregard this advice or ignore the information that they find, some people might take steps to examine these biases. From there onward, those people would take everything the news says with a grain of salt, making it easier for them to spot lies, and additionally, minimizing the impact of those lies.
Furthermore, if media bias can not be stopped on an individual level, one might assume that the solution must lie in the government. However, due to the first amendment and the right to freedom of press, this is not the case. The government has no constitutional power to change what the media says, or limit what they can say. Therefore, while immoral, it is technically legal for news sources ot blatantly lie to their audience, and they are free from the dangers of repercussions in court. The only way to be able to enforce laws targeted at the media would be to change the existing first amendment, which, to do so, would take an amendment itself. While, again, this is theoretically possible, it is unlikely politicians would see media bias as such a large problem, with some, if they are benefited by the lies of cable news, not seeing it as a problem at all.
There is one last solution which does not involve the government or the people, but starts at the problem’s source. If the government is not able to force cable news channels to change and the people will not bring about that change either, the only option is for the sources to change by their own accord. If the media channels saw it as their moral duty to change, which it is, and knew that it would make the world a better place, then the problem may be able to fix itself. However, this relies on the good of the people in charge of these channels, and since partisanship is bringing in viewers, viewers bring in money, and it is rare that people want to earn less money, the chance of this change is close to zero.
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Works Cited: click here!
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