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Are Communications Professionals Concerned about Media Bias? Survey says…

Most comms pros have some concern about bias across eight different media sources; at one end, 54% expressed strong concerns about social media, while at the other, 28% expressed strong concerns about professional journalists

Are there still two sides to every story?

Perhaps not, according to a survey of “11,889 U.S.-based journalists conducted for Pew Research Center by SSRS.” More than half (55%) of journalists surveyed “say that every side does not always deserve equal coverage in the news.”

“By contrast, 22% of Americans overall say the same, whereas about three-quarters (76%) say journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage.” The survey polled 9,388 Americans for their views (methodology).

The Pew Research article refers to this as a decline in “bothsidesism” in journalism, which sounds to me like a euphemism coined in PR circles. Pew points to blatantly false information put out by the extreme right as the catalyst.

I don’t believe reasonable people disagree with denying voice to proven liars. But this notion can easily become a slippery slope, however, given the long list of well-documented cognitive biases that exist in human psychology.

Our brains evolved to prefer shortcuts and it’s just too easy for any human, trained journalist or not, to lean towards the side you are inclined to believe. To that end, the left has extremes on the fringes of the bell curve and they are prone to propaganda too.

Politics, bias and B2B tech

As a rule, I avoid politics – the typical catalyst for discussions of media and bias. It has less of an impact in my focus areas of B2B technology – but it’s not zero. Moreover, today, bias has seeped into the algorithms so central to technology. The fact is, whether the bias is real or perceived, it’s our job to steer employers and clients through the morass.

That’s why this question about bias in the media, in the 5th Annual JOTW Strategic Communications Survey for 2022 is relevant. We asked 483 communicators if they were concerned about bias across eight different sources of media.

It’s worth pointing out, that these are seasoned professionals – 70% of respondents have 11 or more years of experience and many are former journalists. Here’s how their answers stacked up:

  • Social media: 91% have at least some concern about bias in social media; 77% are at least moderate concerned; 54% are very or extremely concerned;
  • Social media algorithms: 90% have at least some concern about bias in social media algorithms; 69% are at least moderate concerned; 45% are very or extremely concerned;
  • Influencers:  87% have at least some concern about bias among influencers; 67% are at least moderate concerned; 41% are very or extremely concerned;
  • Search engine algorithms: 84% have at least some concern about bias in search engines; 65% are at least moderate concerned; 38% are very or extremely concerned;
  • Blogs: 86% have at least some concern about bias among bloggers; 66% are at least moderate concerned; 33% are very or extremely concerned;
  • Traditional news: 83% have at least some concern about bias in traditional news; 56% are at least moderate concerned; 33% are very or extremely concerned;
  • Podcasts: 80% have at least some concern about bias in podcasts; 61% are at least moderate concerned; 27% are very or extremely concerned; and
  • Professional journalists: 76% have at least some concern about bias among professional journalists; 46% are at least moderate concerned; 28% are very or extremely concerned.

Here’s how that looks graphically:

(click image for higher resolution)

And here’s how that looks as a weighted average:

(click image for higher resolution)

The results suggest social media is probably the least reliable source of information – while bona fide journalists are the most credible. As one respondent noted about their organization’s trust in the media, “Most traditional media outlets still have what I would call checks and balances (e.g. editors) and try their best to get the story right.”

However, there’s a fair bit of concern across the board. Another respondent put it this way: “Depends on the media source.  Some have ‘earned reliability,’ others not so much.”

What should communicators do about bias?

Bias is clearly an issue for communicators. The question that remains is – what should communicators do about it?

I have several suggestions including the following.

1. Obligation to keep an open mind.

Professional communicators have an obligation to remain curious and keep an open mind. People have a natural tendency to gravitate toward information that supports our existing line of view – so an implied task is to challenge ourselves to seek out new sources of credible information. To paraphrase the adage – to be willing to entertain ideas even if we don’t, after careful examination, necessarily accept them.

2. Challenge assumptions and verify facts.

In some respects, communicators serve the conscience of an organization. As such, we need to be sure of the information we share – which requires challenging assumptions and verifying statements our organizations purport to be fact. Perhaps this is a matter of PR ethics, but I’d like to believe it is more of a matter of due diligence.

As Stacey Miller of the Auto Care Association put it in her contribution to the report, “My antennas have piqued more often than usual over the past few years when consuming traditional news and I’ve found myself more often than not examining several sources on a singular topic just to ensure I’ve received the most complete information possible.”

3. Responsibility to stay informed about technology.

Search, social media and the algorithms that power these technologies are the biggest sources of concern over bias in this survey. The algorithms are engineered to feed us more of the stuff we click on, which given our nature, is the stuff we already believe. We have a responsibility to stay informed about how these technologies work and to be able to explain the implications to executives and leaders.

This isn’t just limited to algorithms either. “It also means learning new skills, such as identifying deep fakes,” as Karen Swim of Words For Hire, LLC and Solo PR Pro noted in her analysis of the survey data.

Navigating the communications landscape

Bias exists in many forms and it’s part of our job to study it and help our employers and clients to navigate the communications landscape. When we’ve checked off all the boxes on this list, and ‘bothsidesism” is still in decline, we are left with the job of persuasion and advocacy.

There ought to be room for a rational voice, a contrarian, a maverick, with an opposing view grounded in verifiable facts. There’s a strong sense of purpose to be found in that role, even in B2B technology.

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Image credit: Pixabay

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