The Subtlety of Media Bias

April 3, 2009

I haven’t watched network news willingly since I lived in my parents’ home before college. I was a liberal then, but that half hour overview, 20 minutes without commercials and at least half of the rest fluff, just never appealed.

I watch a little Fox News now (shocka!), but mostly I read news aggregators for the stuff that interests me. I’m aware that all news is biased, but I choose what to read and think through my own conclusions.

Still, when one goes back to network news, it’s a little surprising how blatant, and yet oddly subtle the bias is.

When I was in J-school, they’d given up on the idea of objectivity and replaced it with dependency theory and the importance of changing the world, but it was still instructive to see the way the “sausage” was made. You could show bias immediately simply by your choice of stories. For example, you might find 4000 privileged hippies protesting against globalization at the G20 to be newsworthy, yet spike the story about the 4000 local folks who turned out for a tea party protest. It’s just that easy. And yes, liberal readers, that _does_ go both ways.

That’s a long set-up for this. I was in the gym today, watching Mad Money, and one of the other patrons turned on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. I was powerless to turn away. A good third of it was about the G20 summit, which is fine. However, Ms. Couric mentioned twice the 216-point gain in the stock market and both times credited it to the trillion dollars the world ponied up to the 3rd world and the agreements reached today at the G20.

Interesting, that. The stock market had been going up for hours before any of that made the news. There was absolutely not a peep about how the Financial Accounting Standards Board had voted to relax the mark-to-market rules. This is a change that investors had sought for at least 8 months, and when it happened, it had a big psychological effect. Funny how Ms. Couric didn’t think to mention that, but instead _twice_ ascribed the sweeping transnational changes and redistribution of wealth as the reason for the market’s good showing today.

Still, the evening network news knows it’s dying. I paid more attention to the commercials than to the news, just to see what target demographic they were aiming at. Lots of ads for medicine for one’s bowels, bones, bladder, and boner. They know their audience is old and getting older, and they will never get those younger viewers back.

That doesn’t excuse indoctrination, though. Ms. Couric manufactured the news, she did not report it. In doing so, she did a disservice to hundreds of thousands of viewers. Somehow, I don’t suspect she misses much sleep over it.

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