Twenty-some years ago, I was a communications student in a college class on media criticism. One of the debates in that classroom centered on whether or not the media was bias in its reporting.
As I recall, while those debates did get heated, they remained civil; at least by today’s standards. Still, the topic is a healthy one to engage as a free press is a vital institution in a thriving democracy.
The discussion isn’t reserved to just political circles either. The question as to whether or not brands should take a stand on politics comes up over and over again.
Similarly, the 2020 JOTW Communications Survey found businesses believe partisan politics is a complicating factor in communications.
So, what do PR people think about media and bias? They often work with the media, so we put this question in this year’s annual JOTW survey:
Do you believe professional reporters are objective and unbiased?
Here’s how the answers added up:
- 3% said always
- 41% said often
- 37% said sometimes
- 17% said rarely
- 2% said never
And this is what those results looked like graphically:
What stands out to me is that most of the answers fall somewhere in the middle. Very few respondents selected and absolute such as “always” or “never.”
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Media Bias Comments Grouped by Answer
Many questions on this survey included an optional comment field with a simple follow up question that asked “Why?”
Of the 300 respondents that answered this question, 95 wrote in open-ended comments that offer color and context. It’s worth pointing out, many respondents identified themselves as former reporters.
Below is a representative sampling of those answers.
Those that said the media is “always” objective:
- Mistakes maybe; not bias. “Having done that job for close to 20 years, and performing media relations for the last 20, I’ve worked with hundreds of journalists. They weren’t in it for the lousy pay, the long hours, or the difficult working conditions – they were in it to gather facts and present them to an audience. Do they make mistakes? Of course – but not because of bias. And the professional ones take ownership of them and correct them.”
- Minimize inner bias. “Would have preferred ‘almost always.’ In the business press world that I work in, the vast majority of reporters are objective and unbiased, and even those who let some bias show at times (often, a bias against ‘the rich’ or against a big, successful company) are usually pretty limited in how it shows. They minimize their inner bias.”
Those that said the media is “often” objective:
- Information impacts understanding. “Like the rest of us, reporters are subjected to information that affects their understanding of the truth. It’s hard to distinguish sometimes.”
- Toxic political climate. “I fear today’s partisan and often toxic political climate has negatively impacted the objectivity of the press.”
- Divided media bubbles. “In past years, I would have said ‘always,’ but we have ridiculously divided media bubbles now with some super crazy, demonstrably false content.”
- The truth is hard to distinguish. “Like the rest of us, reporters are subjected to information that affects their understanding of the truth. It’s hard to distinguish sometimes.”
- Encroached. “Politics has encroached upon the news. Our journalists are rarely well researched and are often pressured to tow the party line.”
- Experience matters. “The seasoned, veteran reporters are objective, yes – the fresh-out-of-college, I’ve-gotta-make-something-sensational-to-boost-my-name/job/make it viral, much less so (from numerous experiences).”
- Quantum entanglement. “Schrodinger’s cat.” [see this 2-minute video for an explanation].
Those that said the media is “sometimes” objective:
- Politics on the sleeve. “As a former journalist, I saw when you were unable to tell which side of the political spectrum a reporter supported. That is very rare today.”
- Form an opinion. “I don’t think you can lump ‘reporters’ together as a single unit. Some reporters look into topics that interest them – a bias of a kind – while others just do stories that are assigned to them. I think that after a reporter gathers ‘facts’ for a story, they form an opinion, and then it’s hard to remain unbiased. However, they can train themselves to find alternate points of view to include in a story whether they agree with the alternatives or not.”
- Depends on the beat. “Business reporters are merely skeptical or uninformed, but metro and political reporters invariably have agendas.”
- Sensational beats fair. “Is anyone objective and unbiased? I think certain outlets definitely have a bent toward a specific ‘side’ but many reporters are curious about learning the facts. But, ‘sensational’ still draws more eyeballs than ‘fair.’”
- Infotainment. “The idea of a ‘professional’ reporter has become blurred with infotainment. Anyone with a blog can call her- or himself a professional journalist but unfortunately, fewer and fewer remain.” [Note. Infotainment was the word Neil Postman’s used in 1985 in his media criticism].
- From a certain point of view. “There’s a need for self-awareness and knowledge that point of view depends to an extent on one’s vantage point. As I learned writing my dissertation, the stance of objectivity can itself be considered a point of view.”
- Blame social media. “They used to be more unbiased, but social media requirements measure work on likes, tweets and followers.”
Those that said the media is “rarely” objective:
- Adjectives. “Their reporting is colored with adjectives and word pictures that reveal their personal viewpoints without their actually voicing their stand on an issue.”
- From fact to proofreading. “As a former print journalist, I’m appalled at the lack of accuracy… from facts to proofreading… found in today’s media. As a reporter, our publication presented facts from both sides of a story (e.g., police strike included both the city and police dept views) …our goal was to let the reader form an opinion based on facts. That rarely occurs today!”
- 24 hours of time to fill. “Big news perverts facts. All of them. There isn’t 24 hours’ worth of news in a day that matters to an entire nation.”
- Human nature. “People are journalists; people are inherently biased.”
- Neverland. “They never have been. Writing is all about a point of view. Whether delivered via radio TV or online. There is always bias in that sense. But factual is important. And how you interpret those facts is the point of view.”
- Blurred lines. “There is always some native bias and with the further blurring of lines of ‘reporters’ and talking heads who were once paid political operatives, this will only increase.”
Those that said the media is “never” objective:
- Picking a horse. “The media doesn’t even try to hide it anymore – many outlets endorse a candidate; how can an objective organization do that?”
- Bias is universal. “Psychology affects everyone.”
The Effects of PR Ethics on Media Bias
If this survey question feels like it’s piling on the media, it’s not intended to do so. This survey question was coupled with a question about PR ethics – and the veracity of information communicators share with the media. I plan to write up a post of those findings for next week.
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