Saturday, March 04, 2006

Narrowness, rather than bias

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, there is a tendency to blame media bias for the perceived lack of “balanced” coverage coming from mainstream news sources. While I wouldn’t discount bias entirely from the media, I don’t think it plays any significant role in the lack of objective, or even thorough coverage of news stories.

Rather than bias, I think the “narrowness” of the news spectrum is a much bigger factor and one that tends to be lacking from even the more nuanced discussions of the news and/or media coverage of events. By narrowness, I’m talking about the specific framework, which dictates what news stories are acceptable and even, how news is supposed to be covered and disseminated.

In my opinion, the narrowness of the debate reflects more accurately, the subtle and not so subtle indoctrination that all Americans receive, which begins the day we are born. That indoctrination continues throughout school and is reinforced subtly by social norms and expected behavior when we reach adulthood.

As political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in, Democracy on Trial (1995),

“Education is never outside a world of which politics—how human beings govern and order a way of life in common—is a necessary feature… Education always reflects a society’s views of what is excellent, worthy, and necessary. These reflections are not cast in cement like so many foundational stones; rather, they are refracted and reshaped over time as definitions, meanings and purposes change through democratic contestation. In this sense education is political, but being political is different from being directly and blatantly politicized— being made to serve interests and ends imposed by militant groups.”

If Elshtain is correct, and I would concur that she is, then it is possible to say that like education, the media also reflects a society’s view of what is excellent, worthy, and necessary. Rather than bias, per se, our news is shaped by what society accepts as acceptable. It is this which becomes the foundation of what then is transmitted as “truth.”

In addition to the spectrum of mainstream news being extremely narrow, most Americans receive the majority of their news from their local news affiliates. According to a Pew Research study, conducted in April of 2004, 54 percent of Americans get their news from local affiliates, 34 percent from network news and 38 percent from cable news sources. These percentages show an upward trend from previous polls, particularly related to both local news and cable. Additionally, 42 percent gather their news from their local newspaper and another 40 percent receive their daily updates via radio.

If you’ve spent any time watching local newscasts, this is scary. Not only are these 30 minute segments too brief to cover any stories in-depth, but that 30 minutes is also reduced significantly by commercials. Local newspapers have reduced staffs, receive more AP and other syndicated content and frequently short-change news content with cosmetic redesigns and other surface “improvements.”

Even “serious” news outlets such as NPR and Macneil-Lehrer have a narrow focus when it comes to reporting the news. While both of these sources of news are far superior to ideologically-driven programming coming from Fox, Clear Channel and other right-wing news talk operations, they still limit the stories that they cover.

One media research group that tracks news stories and gathers information about topics that are routinely ignored, is Project Censored, based out of Sonoma State University. By tracking news that is published in independent journals and newsletters, the group then compiles an annual list of 25 news stories of social significance that have been overlooked, under-reported, or self-censored by the country's major national news media.

For me, studies such as this clearly indicate that rather than purported bias, either liberal or conservative, the real issue on news and accessing truth, as difficult as that may be, comes down to not having others determine what is news, and what isn’t.

Take for instance this story, about Halliburton being awarded the contract to build domestic detention facilities. Track this story. See if your local newspaper picks up a Knight-Ridder feed or one from the AP, if one is available. It will probably be buried in the middle of the paper, on page 6, or 7, under national stories. This is just one example. There are numerous other “real news” stories that Project Censored has links to.

Along with Project Censored, Democracy Now regularly reports on stories that are conveniently omitted from nightly newscasts, local, and even national papers, or end up buried in papers like the New York Times, or the Washington Post.

Keeping track of what’s going on takes work, diligence, and a little bit of skill. Even then, the rapid pace of daily life, the distractions we’re bombarded with from entertainment and sports, as well as social conditioning make being a truth seeker, a difficult vocation.

**In addition to the resources used from Pew and Project Censored, the quote by Jean Bethke Elshtain was gathered from a blog post on PressThink, Jay Rosen's excellent media blog.


Guerrillas in the Midst said...

Back when I used to watch TV, I watched one local news show and one segment was about "Nike's new reversible shoes". I called up the station and asked if they got paid by Nike to show that. One lackey said "I'm not aware of any payment." I asked if he thought that it was newsworthy and he said "Well, the producer thought it was."

"Well, do YOU think it was newsworthy?"

"The producer did."


asfo_del said...

Thank you for writing this. It's a disheartening trend. People are lured into this false construct whereby "the truth" comes from examining "both sides" of an issue, but when one side is completely lying and the other side is only hinting at half-truths, the actual story lies somewhere else, unreported, forgotten, and unknown.

Jim said...

This is a serious issue and I appreciate the comments.

I deplore the technique that is rendered balance, which means we have two guests (or four, equally divided) all from different seats on the same bus. Meanwhile, the bus is headed off the cliff!

Good God!!