The Media are Biased. So What?

A common complaint is that certain media have a slant in some political direction or otherwise. But that is practically inevitable for specific outlets. And as I will argue below it is not a problem in and of itself. Demands that specific media should be “unbaised” are mostly a ruse to force another bias through.

It should not be surprising either that there can be a general slant across outlets. Only if all the media had the same slant would you have to ask some questions. Unfortunately, that can happen, too, but usually not for contentious positions. A bias of this kind is cultural. It is hard to see how it could be avoided either although I find it way more problematic than other biases that are out in the open.

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What are media? Literally they are those in the middle (the plural of the Latin “medium”). They connect “news” with an audience.

One side is that journalists specialize in finding or researching “news.” As the word insinuates, this is new information that is not yet widely known. What counts as “news” depends on the respective culture. Results from the NFL are “news” in the US, rarely in Germany, while results from the Bundesliga (the real football, by the way) are “news” here and not on the other side of the Atlantic. There are some types of “news,” though, that are not as country-specific, eg. information about governments, politicians, policies, or about the economy, social developments, technologies, “celebrities,” and so forth.

Still, also in this case, there is a cultural bias. German media would perhaps report about US politics on the federal level, but only rarely about what happens further down. The focus for US media is even more constrained, basically it is: Angela Merkel. What exactly is considered as “news” depends on what the respective audience thinks it is. There can be specialist publications that would also regard new research in astronomy or new releases of classical music as “news.”

Obviously, there is no way to define apriori what “news” should be. It is actually suspicious when someone treats it as if there could be such a definition. “News” is what some audience wants to keep abreast of. There is a line of argument here, as far as I can tell from people like Noam Chomsky, that the definition of what is considered as “news” also implies that certain things are not “news.” That is true. But it is hard to see how it could be otherwise.

If “news” is just another word for any new information, regardless of whether anyone is interested in it, the demand that the media report on it is just silly. Something has to give. Only if some new information can never be “news” although an audience is interested in it, would that be a reason for concern. But even Noam Chomsky and his fans can make “news” in certain media as they want. They just cannot get access to as broad an audience as they want. I can’t either with my blogging here, but then I do not whine about it.

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The other side of the media is the audience. It can be broad and diffuse, but also narrow and targeted. That a specific medium pursues one and not the other is not a problem in and of itself. Only if all media were one way that might be a symptom that something is going wrong. However, I can’t see why this should be so in liberal democracies, and it isn’t. Of course, under authoritarian regimes it may be quite different with restrictions on who can make “news” and whom they target. That’s then also so for what is defined as “news.”

As noted, different audiences are interested in different topics as “news.” If the New York Times has a readership that is perhaps on average somewhat left of center, and climate change is — bad pun intended — a hot issue for them, it is no indication of malfunction when you find that there are indeed rather many articles turning around the question. Another medium with a different audience might run more stories that are critical or none at all, but then they would cover other topics instead that the New York Times may have to leave out.

Surely, both are biases. But as long as you have a spectrum where “news” are picked up somewhere, the media as a whole work in my view. Or you would have to make a more specific argument, eg. that topics are being stealthily pushed regardless of interest from an audience or the reporting is deficient in some way, eg. because claims are demonstrably false or just made up. But that is a different question, it is about quality. If media were obliged to cover certain topics in a certain way, prominently or not at all, that would be an indication that something is at odds.

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Audiences also play another role here. They only have a certain attention span. How much time do you want to dedicate to a topic per week? Perhaps not all that much. So you want to get the information in a concise form. If a journalist can write with a specific type of reader in mind, they do not have to recap all the previous stories, but can rely on background knowledge. They can use shorthand and pack more information into a story than otherwise.

This can lead to a certain groupthink that will come across as biased to someone who views these assumptions as dubious. But to a certain extent this is perhaps unavoidable. You can surely challenge it, and I would often, too. But unless it is done in pure bad faith, I don’t think it is a fundamental problem with the media as long as you can change the channel.

There is still another part for audiences. They pay attention that can be monetized via ads or they support the relevant media via a subscription. It is only natural that those then cater to their interests and, yes, also their prejudices embedded in their worldviews. So, if those who subscribe to newspapers are not representative for the population and are maybe left of center to some degree, it should be no surprise that the media have a certain slant on the whole.

Who says that there should be perfect representation also for those who do not bother to subscribe or even read a newspaper or any newspaper at all? It is strange to demand that it should be different. Why would these media have to work for an audience that does not pay them and even annoy those who do? In no other line of business would that be a valid complaint. Your supermarket does not carry a product that you care about? So what, go to another or set up your own. In case there is a large audience that is left out, there is also market that cries out to be served. There would only be a problem if you could not do this as a matter of principle.

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Journalists, despite their heroic and disinsterested self-image, are in a sober estimate the middleman that have to connect the news, maybe enriched by background information, with an audience. I like media more that also go against the grain, and that’s where I allot more of my attention. But that is my taste. If many people do not see it that way and subsidize other media, I do not see this as a problem per se. I would perhaps criticize it, but would also be aware that to a large extent I criticize the respective audiences that are complacent and only interested in reinforcement for their views.

This is not to say, everything is equally good. There are outlets with an abysmally low standard, others expose their readers or viewers to a broader mix and also challenge their worldviews. But maybe there is a limit to that. There is only so much attention to go around. And it is not reasonable to ask that I should read also my fair share of articles on the NFL or with views that I find worthless from the start.

But then there is often a criticism that, let’s say, CNN has a certain bias, and yes, it is more left of center, and FOX News has another. That is not a problem as such in my view. What would be the standard here? That both report on the same things all the time, and always present the same information, and that they take a poll of the general population to exactly serve up the consensus? Actually, if you think about it, this would be really scary: The belief that there can be one “objective” norm for all media, That is what would indicate you do not have free media at all.

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That said, I have my own beef with many specific outlets and the media in general. Only the complaint that there is a bias is not one of them because it cannot be otherwise. And those who utter it, actually have a much less benevolent agenda than they want you to believe: They want to ram certain things through as news everywhere and with their slant. And the call for “unbiased” media is in the final analysis a call for much more blatant bias, and bias that it would be impossible to avoid.

Just to take a concrete example: There is a standing complaint that not all media will report on any violent crime committed by immigrants. But then why is there a right to demand that it must be so? There is only a limited amount of attention. Basically, what is demanded as “unbiased” is that I must be flooded with such examples.

I am surely interested in having an overview here, especially if there were some tendency. However, why only for violent crimes by immigrants, why not for all violent crimes? If you follow this to its logical conclusion, news would be one long police report listing hundreds, if not thousands of cases. But then the supposedly “unbiased” reporting is meant to bring in a bias on violent crimes by immigrants that some people would like to have for their propaganda.

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The upshot for me is that a bias of specific outlets is not a problem as a matter of principle. Neither is a certain slant across the media as long as it is possible to get many viewpoints and avoid a party line. The real problem lies elsewhere as far as I can see. There can be general bias of all the media because everybody — the audience in the first place and then the media — take certain things for granted that they perhaps should not.

But that is then a cultural question that is hard to tackle anyway. And the only solution would be to break through such a consensus with additional media, not by forcing something on the existing ones if they do not want to do it for some reason. You can start a blog, just a hint.