Americans tend to live in the moment, believing that current events are new and different than anytime before. This is a reflection of the poor education system in the US even about our own history. One example of this is the general belief that media bias is relatively new. Common beliefs are that journalism was different and better in the past. This is a myth. All human beings are biased, i.e. teachers, judges, journalists, pastors, parents, etc. Everyone is biased. Questions arise, like, “is bias bad?”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows for a wide spectrum of viewpoints, from all ends of the political, social, and cultural spectrums. However, when media outlets demonstrate clear bias, it can lead to the oversimplification or misrepresentation of issues, potentially manipulating public opinion and obscuring truth.
The rise of social media platforms often use algorithms designed to show users content that aligns with their existing views, potentially exacerbating political and social polarization. This phenomena of "echo chambers" or "filter bubbles" can limit exposure to diverse viewpoints, constraining the robust exchange of ideas that is fundamental to a healthy democracy and to the liberty of its citizens.
Without critical thinking by readers and listeners, biased media can contribute to the spread of misinformation (untrue information spread without malicious intent) and disinformation (false information spread intentionally to deceive). These phenomena can undermine trust in institutions, stoke social and political tensions, and even influence election outcomes. Such an environment can compromise the informed citizenry necessary for a functioning democracy and potentially limit individuals' freedom to make decisions based on accurate information.
Media bias can sway unthinking public opinion and thereby influence policy and legislation. Policymakers may feel pressure to align their decisions with the dominant narrative in the media. This can potentially lead to policies that limit certain liberties.
Public trust in journalism is often sloppy and uncritical. Too often readers and listeners belief media without critical thinking and questioning. If they believe that the media is not providing them with an accurate representation of reality, they may turn to alternative, potentially less reliable sources of information, or disengage from public discourse altogether. The belief in the media's role as a "Fourth Estate" that holds power to account should be fundamental to the preservation of liberty. However, it is the belief that media should be unbiased that has led to this disillusionment.
On the flip side, awareness of media bias has heightened the importance of media literacy. As individuals become more adept at recognizing bias and verifying information, they can actively participate in exercising their liberty. Sadly, too few Americans exercise their liberty in this way.
Bias can come from ignorance or simply from a set of values or beliefs about what is important for life and liberty. It is a bias to prefer individual liberty over collective tyranny and vice-versa. The true challenge with bias is the claim that a person or source is not biased. Consumers of new want objective, truthful, unbiased reporting. This is not possible simply because all humans are biased, both reporters and readers. A reporter may report the facts as they see them, but the reader may conclude something else based on their bias. The necessary ingredient for both is honesty and transparency. Everyone must know and admit their bias. Bias is not bad by itself. Bias should reflect an informed value and belief system. Nevertheless, the honest person of integrity should at all times seek the truth and allow the truth to influence their beliefs and values and therefore their biases.
Consider the history of bias in the media throughout US history:
American Revolution (1770s - 1780s): During the American Revolution, newspapers were a primary means of spreading information and propaganda. They were typically aligned with one side or the other, with Loyalist papers supporting the British cause and Patriot papers advocating for independence. These newspapers often showed clear bias in their portrayals of events, including pivotal incidents like the Boston Massacre in 1770.
The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798): These controversial laws, passed during the presidency of John Adams, were designed to suppress dissent against the Federalist Party, which controlled the government at the time. They made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Many Democratic-Republican newspapers were targeted, demonstrating how control of media could be used to suppress political opposition.
The Abolitionist Press (1830s - 1860s): Abolitionist newspapers like William Lloyd Garrison's "The Liberator" and Frederick Douglass' "The North Star" were explicitly biased against slavery and played a crucial role in galvanizing the abolitionist movement. Their reporting on the horrors of slavery was starkly different from the pro-slavery bias often seen in Southern newspapers of the time.
The Civil War (1861 - 1865): Media bias was prevalent in the reporting of the Civil War. Northern newspapers often portrayed the Union cause in a positive light, while Southern newspapers did the same for the Confederacy. This period also saw widespread use of wartime censorship, especially in the South, where newspapers were sometimes shut down for expressing anti-Confederate sentiments.
Reconstruction Era (1865 - 1877): In the aftermath of the Civil War, newspapers continued to reflect the biases of their regions and political affiliations. Many Southern newspapers, for example, portrayed the efforts to secure rights for freed slaves during Reconstruction in a negative light, while Northern Republican papers tended to support those efforts.
Yellow Journalism (1890s): This term refers to the sensationalized and often exaggerated reporting style used by some newspapers to drive sales, notably William Randolph Hearst's "New York Journal" and Joseph Pulitzer's "New York World." The bias was often towards whatever would sell more papers and not necessarily the truth. An infamous instance is the coverage of the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898, where such papers fanned the flames of war with Spain with misleading headlines.
Progressive Era (1890s - 1920s): Muckraking journalists, associated with the progressive movement, often showed a clear bias in their reporting, aiming to expose social injustices, corporate malfeasance, and political corruption. Their bias, however, was towards the goal of reform and improved societal conditions.
World War I (1914-1918) & II (1939-1945): During both wars, American media was heavily biased towards the Allied cause. In World War I, the Committee on Public Information, a government agency, controlled the flow of war news, often accentuating the positives and downplaying the negatives. In World War II, media was again mobilized to support the war effort, portraying the Allies as the defenders of freedom against Axis aggression.
Red Scare and McCarthyism (1940s - 1950s): During this period of heightened fear of communism, some media outlets were accused of being either complicit in spreading anti-communist hysteria or, conversely, being "soft" on communism. The media bias often leaned towards endorsing the narrative of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Civil Rights Movement (1950s - 1960s): Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement varied greatly. Some Southern newspapers downplayed or justified segregation and racial violence. In contrast, other outlets—especially national television networks—were instrumental in bringing attention to the struggle for civil rights, though their coverage could sometimes be criticized as superficial or sensationalist.
Vietnam War (1960s - 1970s): The media's role during the Vietnam War was complex and evolving. Early on, most news outlets were supportive of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. However, as the war dragged on and the body count rose, more journalists began to question the official accounts of the war, leading to what some have called an "anti-war" bias. The uncensored and graphic coverage of the war, including the televised reporting of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre, played a significant role in shifting public opinion against the war.
This period from 1870 to 1970 was one of significant change in the media landscape, with the growth of radio and television broadcasting adding new dimensions to the question of media bias. As in other periods of American history, the media reflected a range of biases, influenced by various social, political, and economic factors.
These examples illustrate the long history of media bias, which is not a new phenomenon. From the earliest days of the republic, American media has reflected a range of biases, often shaped by regional, political, and social contexts. Americans must know their own biases and question the bias of others.