Food preferences, religious beliefs, personality traits, and an endless list of other factors shape our biases. Taking into account that humans by nature are biased, we can understand the nature of media bias. While bias itself is not a harmful thing, it becomes a problem when it is used unfairly to distort the public’s view of an issue or person. There is not a side that is solely responsible for creating media bias. It comes from all directions in all forms of media.
Regardless of the political positioning of a particular source, they will show favor towards towards ideas and people that agree with them and attempt to polarize people against their opposition. The easiest comparison to political media bias coming from all directions is found in sports media. Sports media deals with a smaller sample size of people and with less nuanced issues. However, they have the same impact on that small sector of the world that political media has on the entire country.
Sports writers that work for local newspapers have an obligation to represent their “home team’s” perspective and interests. For example, the Atlanta Falcons went to Philadelphia on Thursday to play the Super Bowl champion Eagles in the season opener. Two sets of reporters and fans watched the game but came away with two different sets of feelings and opinions. This can be evidenced clearly from the headlines written about the game. Some of the headlines from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read “Once more, Falcons get lost in the dead, er, red zone” and “If Falcons want what Eagles have, they have to seize it.
The outcome of the game wasn’t favorable for the city of Atlanta, so these headlines were skewed in a negative direction. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the headlines from the Philly Inquirer read “Eagles show reminders of Super Bowl team in 18-12 win over Atlanta Falcons” (Berman) and “Eagle’s offensive line and running backs got it right just in time against Falcons” (Bowen). The shift in attitude according to perspective is very noticeable. People are very tribal about sports, and act in a similar way about political issues. The political media exhibits a similar biased nature when reporting on the same situation. Both sides will speak on the topic as though their perspective is of a higher moral value regardless of a perceived “win” or “loss” of the game or issue.
Taking into consideration the polarization of sports media, you can begin to draw connections in the that way different sources of political media handle the same issue. Two of the biggest media outlets, Fox News and MSNBC, show the most drastic difference in coverage. Two issues they have covered extensively are the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and Ivanka Trump’s stance on immigrant family separation. In the event of a death or retirement of a Supreme Court justice, another must be selected and confirmed to take their place. This is happening in our country right now and the media is split on the president’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Just like with sports, the headlines prove the point effectively. However, it doesn’t do justice to how far the two sides will go to paint Kavanaugh in the light they want American citizens to see him in.
MSNBC ran a segment with Rachel Maddow to comment on Kavanaugh’s view of Roe v. Wade. She brings up that he mentioned in an email that it can be overturned, and that some justices on the Supreme Court would rule in favor of that outcome (Maddow). What she fails to mention, however, is that he stated he respects that it is the current precedent and understands the positions of those who oppose overturning the decision. In the video Kavanaugh is painted to be an abject enemy of women’s rights with no redeeming qualities. Fox News also posted an opinion piece about the hearing on their website. The posts were completely different in nature, as this one contained nothing but praise for the potential justice.
The author gives his performance glowing reviews, even referring to the hearing as a “contest of gladiators” in the beginning of the article. He is depicted as someone that suffers through everything the Democrats throw at him and reaches the other side unscathed. The whole first half of the article focuses on his intellectual prowess and intimate understanding of the United States Constitution. The second half and embedded video shows the arrows fired by Democrats in his direction and attempts to pass them off as non-factors by citing most of them as misinformation (Spakovsky). Kavanaugh is portrayed as both a hero and villain using the exact same information. Both sides of the issue manipulate and weaponize different aspects of the situation to frame Kavanaugh in the light they want people to see him in.
Another individual that conservative and liberal media are divided on is Ivanka Trump. She recently came under fire for her perceived silence on the issue of immigrant families being separated. She was slammed on the Morning Joe show on MSNBC by Mika Brzezinski for her statement on the issue. Brzezinski stated that Trump could “do better” and portrayed her concern for the issue as insincere (Brzezinski). This is an unfair portrayal as it simply uses one statement to represent on the actions, or lack thereof, she has taken to combat the issue.
Fox News also has a video tackling this issue. They defend Ivanka Trump by saying she has tried to take action on the situation instead of “virtue signaling” (Kurtz). Neither source truly seems to respect the complicated nature of the issue and how hard it is to make a decision. They simply jump to attack one another based solely on political stance. Since Trump is the daughter of a conservative president, she is perceived as an enemy by the liberal media. They show their bias against her by framing her that way. Conservative media makes it seem like she has done all she can because of who her father is. There is truth somewhere in the middle of both arguments, but neither side seems to move to try and find it.
While this is not a good justification, I believe the two main reasons media acts through bias like they do are to keep the lights on and promote their own agenda. Media outlets like Fox and MSNBC may be our source for political information, but they are still privately-owned businesses. They have ratings they are expected to meet, and if they lose their respective audiences they can’t make them. Polarizing people from a young age helps to shape their political ideology and encourages them against consuming news from other outlets. This Pew Research Center graph from an article on People-Press exemplifies the effect of this very well. People are becoming more and more polarized to one side or the other, leaving few left in the middle.
This polarization leaves many citizens feeling as though they cannot trust traditional media sources. A recent Gallup poll conducted this year found that Americans believe sixty-two percent of news reported on by popular media is biased. That number increases when the source is moved to social media, which sits at eighty percent (Jones).The distrust in media is escalating, and the polarization of American citizens isn’t doing much to help. However, it is important to remember that bias is a problem affecting all sides and not just liberals or conservatives.