Highly Debatable: Bias in Mainstream Media. Can We Escape the Echo Chamber?

Back in the day, the information we consumed was limited to morning newspapers, network television, and local AM radio stations. Ah, the good old days. But, wait. Shouldn’t we be celebrating the vast resources available now at our fingertips?

You know the phrase that starts with “too much of a good thing” and ends with “is bad for you”? Well, it applies here. Just because we have better access to information doesn’t mean it’s all beneficial, especially with how we view the world and what’s happening in it.

When it comes to news, trust in mainstream media is at an all-time low. In its annual “Trust Barometer,” communications firm Edelman found most people surveyed worldwide believe journalists purposely try to mislead the public by spreading misinformation. A dubious honor, if there ever was one.

In the context of our lionization of traditional journalists like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, how did we get to where we are today?

In a new series, a rotating cast of Unlock The Grid reporters and editors discuss issues under the radar but are Highly Debatable. This week, we look at hyperpartisanship in mainstream media and its impact on American politics, from K Street to Main Street and beyond.

The following is a transcript of a conversation moderated by Unlock The Grid’s Research Director Lauren Seifert. Some of the questions and comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lauren Seifert: I’ll get right to it. Do you think mainstream media bears some responsibility for the partisanship we see permeating American life?

Ann Riddle (Lead Sub-Editor): Here are some of my thoughts. The very nature of media contributes to the issue of partisanship. The core mission of reporting to the public is about communication. Even when stories or sources aren’t trying to be partisan, just reporting can present itself that way, especially when you think about the time spent and the number of segments or articles devoted to an issue or crisis.

Lauren Seifert: That’s a good point. I think we, incorrectly, put news and journalists on a pedestal of impartiality. But, it’s impossible not to let your worldview shape your coverage. After Walter’s Cronkite’s reports from Vietnam, the myth goes that (Lyndon) Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Regardless, soon after, support for the war plummeted.

Greg Tenor (Outreach Strategist): When I think about the political debates Americans have around their dining room table or by the office water cooler, these conversations are often, if not all the time, about topics they heard on the news or saw scrolling through their Twitter news feed. I mean, we’re all human. The world around us influences our perceptions, what we hear from our families, friends, colleagues, etc. But, all that information has to come from somewhere. And that “somewhere” is media. The media has enormous power to radicalize its viewers, readers, and listeners politically. That partly explains why we also see more politically radical representatives sent to Washington on our behalf.

Ann Riddle: News organizations should weigh in when necessary. There can be truth in opinion. But, they still have to report — in as much of a nonpartisan way as possible — straight facts. There are so many examples of flat-out lies from our elected officials. The media can’t afford just to stand by and become complicit in distorting the facts.

Lauren Seifert: Is the idea of unbiased journalism just pie in the sky?

Ann Riddle: I’m unsure if unbiased journalism exists in the truest sense of the word. Our backgrounds and experiences influence us in explicit and implicit ways. And I believe that’s true for even the most seasoned journalists. That being said, I think it’s also the public’s responsibility to consume various news sources. That’s the best way to stay informed and keep our personal biases in check.

Ava Tiger (Sub-Editor): Unbiased journalism can exist theoretically but probably doesn’t in reality. Journalists are human, and everyone has their thoughts. It’s in our DNA. The media shouldn’t manipulate facts, but even the very words used to report the news can have an inherent bias. While they may be reporting the same story, networks like CNN and Fox can manipulate hard facts into biased opinions. For me, however, I’m still an avid consumer of mainstream media because there isn’t much of an alternative available.

Marrissa Bransford (Reporter): News is an essential industry the public needs. But, like nearly every industry, the bottom line is to make money. How does mainstream media increase profits? By selling ad dollars. And they need views, clicks, and ratings to do that. Drama sells, and they dramatize important information to cater to their target audiences. Going back to CNN, for example, they heavily criticize Republicans over what seems like every move they make. Because of that, the left is suspicious of the right. And vice versa from right-leaning media like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

Andrew Hoffman (Reporter): It makes me think about the recent New York Times’ story about CNN President Jeff Zucker. He was caught on tape praising Donald Trump’s “style” — even saying he wanted to give him a show. The fact is that however fraught the CNN/Trump relationship is, as the relationship between partisan politicians and MSM is, it’s symbiotic. They feed off of one another, and they profit off of hate.

Ava Tiger: Absolutely! Mainstream media companies are for-profit entities. And they’ll continue to write articles and scripts that align with their audience’s opinions, even if it involves exaggerating, deflating, or manipulating data. If profit were less of an incentive, I believe some news, though not all, would be less biased.

Greg Tenor: Given that media — broadcast media in particular — is beholden to ratings and advertisers, they need to be sure their audience is, yes, informed but also entertained. In turn, certain media outlets will dictate what they feel should be the national priority or the national conversation. In doing so, they report in a way that’s often skewed to satisfy their viewers.

Andrew Hoffman: Politicians also need coverage to get elected, and the news media needs exciting, entertaining content to feed its viewers. Like, it’s why someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene receives more coverage than others in Congress. It’s not like mainstream media endorses here — in fact, it’s probably the opposite — but we’ve got to ask ourselves: Are the hours of coverage given to her, the seismic boost in her name recognition, and all the fundraising she gets not some form of an endorsement? The net effect here is dangerous to legislative business and dangerous to democracy. The media gives politicians the incentive to be clowns, frankly, to spend more time being controversial than being a serious lawmaker.

Lauren Seifert: For sure. CBS’ former CEO Les Moonves once said Trump might be bad for the country, but he was “damn good” for his network. It’s depressing knowing we’re beholden to media bias because “money makes the world go-’round.” But, as Ava noted, what other alternatives are there? Are we at the mercy of mainstream media because there’s no other choice?

Andrew Hoffman: I try to consume the vast majority of my news from print sources — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc. I read articles online, but I think there’s something about being in print that makes a news agency take its obligation to tell the truth from all angles more seriously. There’s also a history with printed sources — longer than television, radio, and web — and I think newspapers see themselves as a part of the American experience.

Ann Riddle: I advocate everyone should subscribe to different sources with different views. Somewhere in the middle is where you’ll find the truth. Where do I go for unbiased news? Everyone’s preferences are contrasting, but I enjoy reading and listening to NPR. It’s also helpful to step outside American media and seek international outlets, like the BBC. At the very least, it gives you a broader perspective of the world at large. I still don’t believe there is such a thing as genuinely unbiased media, but these are less hyper-partisan sources, in my opinion.

Greg Tenor: I think it’s realistic for media to remain unbiased, but it requires outlets to reflect internally about their ethics and what they feel is their role. Is it to entertain or inform? I don’t think it can be both. The Hill is a reliable source I often follow, along with Axios and Politico. I think it’s crucial to remain media literate. What I mean is we can still read New York Times and Washington Post, but we have to think critically about what we’re consuming. Are both sides being presented? Is something being normalized that shouldn’t be? These questions, among others, are ones that we should ask ourselves when consuming media.

Lauren Seifert: Not that this a plug, but I like aggregator apps like Feedly. They help me read the latest news from different sources in one place. In 2021, everyone’s a critic. You have social media, 24/7 cable news, live streaming, so on and so on. I think, to Ann’s point, it takes personal responsibility to find the right balance if that’s what you even want. I mean, opinions matter, but so do facts. When you can find a happy medium, you’re able to liberate yourself from revenue-driven corporations and bad actors pushing a false narrative for self-serving reasons… Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and weighing in on this highly debatable issue.

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People around the world are craving unbiased news. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found 75% of those surveyed across 38 countries said it’s “never acceptable for a news organization to favor one political party over others when reporting the news.” But, as polarization reaches a fever pitch and Americans are dragged to one side of the aisle or the other, they still believe an independent media is indispensable to our democracy.

Unlock The Grid supports a bipartisan commitment by our political leaders and the media that informs us to achieve meaningful progress that impacts our lives and shapes our futures. We want to hear from you! Join the discussion by following us on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Unlock The Grid is a national, youth-led bipartisan organization that aims to reduce polarization in Congress by promoting working across the aisle.