Over the weekend, actor and former conservative politician Fred Thompson accused The Drudge Report with “being in Romney’s back pocket” because of the disproportionate amount of pro-Romney to anti-Newt Gingrich stories posted on the site. In a different instance earlier this month, President Barack Obama accused the press of giving him a “cold and aloof” image. In an era of unprecedented polarization, the one thing all major politicians seem to agree on is the menace of media bias.
Despite the cacophony of accusations that come from both sides of the aisle, media bias might not be as much of a problem as once thought. With social media exploding and the rise of the citizen journalist, complaints about media bias are obsolete.
From the social media perspective, Twitter alone boasts roughly 100 million users and is credited with breaking the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death before any traditional media outlet. Political blogs run by engaged citizens cover a myriad of issues, from state to federal, left to right. Yet, entire organizations exist for the sole purpose of exposing potential bias by major news outlets.
The two leading organizations, the Media Research Center and FAIR parse the smallest details of newscasts, newspapers and periodicals. The Media Research Center, the more conservative of the two watchdogs, recently launched a $5 million campaign to expose “media bias and its role in the 2012 election.” FAIR, the more progressive of the two, offers enthusiasts a weekly radio show that promises to uncover “sexism, racism, homophobia and the power of corporate influence” in the media.
For all the aforementioned promises, one might assume that there is some index to make this problem quantifiable. In fact, several indexes are routinely employed to judge the health of the media. The complex Herfindahl-Hirschman Index gives insight into industry concentration of the media; the more casual Press Freedom Index ranks how democratically a country treats its press. However, there is no index that has made media bias quantifiable.
Instead, the closest thing to commensurability is a study by UCLA political science professor, Timothy Groseclose. Groseclose’s study, “A Measure of Media Bias,” tracks “how many times media outlets reference policy groups in comparison with how many times congressman cite these groups.” Although it identifies potentially loaded language, is this truly an accurate measure?
Groseclose isn’t alone in his efforts to uncover what constitutes media bias. Malcolm Gladwell discusses the correlation between Brian William’s facial expressions and the promotion of Republican candidates in his book The Tipping Point. Again, does this provide any real insight into the alleged problem?
The lack of consistent measurement standards, coupled with the explosion of new types of journalism makes the “menacing media bias” seem like a trite chimera. Perhaps media bias as a problem should go the way of pornography in that “we know it when we see it.” If news consumers are cognitive enough to notice perceived bias from a source, then they are cognitive enough to seek out another source and ponder another perspective.
Arguably, the primary goal of journalists is to enable some semblance of an informed citizenry. Thomas Jefferson adroitly pointed out that “a well informed citizenry is the only repository of the public will.” However, being well informed requires a certain level of personal responsibility on behalf of the citizen, i.e. seeking out different perspectives. Instead of berating the media as opinion peddlers, recognize the bounty of unorthodox, fresh perspectives waiting to be discovered.
Photo Credit: mfhiatt