By Peter Brinson
Allegations of media bias are nothing new in the United States. Though conservatives have been the most vocal in recent years, liberals have also been known to argue that the news media systematically presents information in a way that privileges the opposition’s viewpoint. This debate has been carried out in the popular press as well, with each side struggling to provide the definitive proof that the media disadvantages their side in reporting the news. In this paper, I argue that the question about whether or not the news media are biased is the wrong question to ask, not only because each side will always be able to construct an answer that suits them by ignoring evidence to the contrary, but also because producing an un-biased news media is simply not possible. Because there is no broadly agreed-upon definition of “bias,” debates about bias resemble arguments about some mythical beast that no one has ever seen. What matters is not whether news media are biased in some abstract, essentialist sense, but how particular media outlets cover particular stories in more or less biased ways than their real-life counterparts.
In this paper, I first survey the scholarly literature on news media bias in the sense commonly assumed in the claims of political partisans, the privileging of one political party/candidate/ideology over the other. Overwhelming evidence shows that mainstream news media taken together do not exhibit any systematic preference for either Democrats or Republicans. Next, I argue that such null findings do not mean that media are “unbiased;” rather, there are many ways in which news content is shaped and framed in ways that make the news a distorted picture of reality. A bewildering array of structural factors, ideological factors, and individual actions at all stages of the media production process all contribute to the final product: the news as a... [continues]
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