Newsrooms becoming an echo chamber

Published 05.11.2018 00:00
Newsrooms becoming an echo chamber

Hidden bias and the disproportionate representation of political ideologies in newsrooms, when compared to the general public, has lead the U.S. mainstream media into a crisis of credibility

With the elections in Brazil concluded, Jair Bolsonaro's victory continues the right wing's streak in global politics. Of course, "right wing" in global politics is a relative term as countries tend to draw their own lines in the sand on the political alignments but overall, from Donald Trump's victory to Brexit, these campaigns share several similarities. We will look at the media aspect of these campaigns today.

As you might be aware, the U.S. midterms are right around the corner and the lay of the land is quite similar to previous presidential elections which resulted in Trump's victory. Especially on the media side of the things, most of the mainstream media expects a "blue wave," in other words, a historic Democrat victory over the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the main reasons behind that is quite plausible and based on the history. Midterms were usually where the voter turnout favored the opposing party of the sitting president. And in a country such as the United States where voter enthusiasm is one of the most important factors in an election, Democrats certainly start this race with an important edge. Yet considering the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the controversy surrounding his U.S. Supreme Court nomination and confirmation, Republicans also managed to galvanize their own base.

Where do media stand in all of this? Unfortunately, in a position quite similar to the previous presidential elections.

There is a reason behind this new rise of the right and its tendency to point the finger at journalists. On one hand it is like a gateway drug to full-blown authoritarianism and quite worrying to witness in this day and age. On the other hand, media managed to paint this target on its back over the years with its political bias. Now, political candidates can wag their fingers at journalists with unfavorable questions and ridicule them with impunity. Detailed coverage of a scandalous remark that used to torpedo a campaign is now just a blip on the radar. Now this can even be a positive thing for a campaign. Media was considered to be the underdog that went after the powerful to uncover the truth back in the day. The perception now is the opposite.

The reason is simple. Media no longer possesses the same credibility in the eyes of the people. At the very least it doesn't possess the same credibility in the eyes of the people who are right leaning. This demographic no longer feels that the mainstream media is their ears and voice in the political arena. What used to be defended by a marginal few who were into conspiracy theories are now commonly used talking points among the general population and political candidates certainly took notice of them. Media is now an easy target. Especially considering that Trump wasn't even supported by the vast majority of the mainstream media, is it surprising at all when he puts them in the crosshairs figuratively, especially when it scores him easy points with his base?

One of the main underlying reasons behind this loss of credibility is political bias as mentioned above. But how did that come to pass? For that, we can look at the political leanings of the United States journalists themselves.

Liberal newsrooms

Let's look at a 2004 report by the Pew Research Center first:"About a third of national journalists (34 percent) and somewhat fewer local journalists (23 percent) describe themselves as liberals; that compares with 19 percent of the public in a May survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, there are a relatively small number of conservatives at national and local news organizations. Just 7 percent of national news people and 12 percent of local journalists describe themselves as conservatives, compared with a third of all Americans."

There are two glaring irregularities here. First one is the stark difference in numbers between political sides, with the left leaning journalists outnumbering those who are on the other side of the aisle. The second one is the representation. The media's political demographics was quite different that the political demographics of the general public.

Not to mention that the perception of independents is quite different these days. For example, mainstream media titans such as CNN were considered as independent or just slightly left-leaning once upon a time, yet these days, not so much. CNN is one of the main recipients of Trump's ire along with many of his conservative base for bias.

It appears though, the polarized nature of U.S. political scene drove more journalists to self-identify as independents. According to "The American Journalist in the 21st Century: U.S. News People at the Dawn of a New Millenium" from 2014, independents are on the rise while right wingers remain as a minority. Here is a more detailed breakdown from the Pew analysis on the report:

"In the most recent survey, 40 percent of journalists described themselves as being on the left side of the political spectrum – 31 percent said they were "a little to the left" and 9 percent "pretty far to the left." But that number was down notably, seven percentage points from 1992, when 47 percent said they leaned leftward.

The percentage of "middle of the roaders" moved up slightly to 33 percent in 2002 from 30 percent in 1992. And the number of journalists identifying themselves leaning toward the political right also inched up to 25 percent from 22 percent a decade earlier (20 percent "a little to the right" and 5 percent "pretty far to the right").

One of the main problems with that however is determining how many of the independents are actually left leaning because that is among the reasons behind the distrust in the media by a large majority. It is considered as a hidden bias. Let me open that a bit further.

At the end of the day, journalists hold a political position and that bleeds into their work. There are ways to mitigate that but it is inevitable. It is also an acceptable sort of bias. Newspapers hold political positions, same goes for their journalists. They can report solely on facts and show their political leanings in the selections the stories instead of making them up. They can also show them in their clearly defined opinion sections. It is a matter of not owning to that bias and letting them take over in a way that supersedes the facts that erodes most of the credibility. It is a matter of blending opinion with reporting in a way that takes away from both of them.

Labeling and marginalizing

Along the way, the term mainstream media got distorted and turned into left-leaning media for the U.S. While this labeling shift gave short-term credibility to the related parties, we are now witnessing its long term consequences.

Labeling the right as conservative, right wing or even alt-right in a disproportionate amount while letting left-wing ideas and people mentioned without a label in order to present them as the mainstream or unbiased is exactly the sort of hidden bias that led to current credibility crisis. Let's look at a study from Media Research Center on the matter.

The study takes two woman's political organizations, Concerned Women for America (CWA) and National Organization for Women (NOW). The former is the conservative one while the latter is liberal leaning. By analyzing three newspapers and three news magazines, study found out that NOW was only labeled as liberal in 2.4 percent of the 421 stories that mentioned their organization.

When we turn to the CWA however, numbers shift quite dramatically. In the 61 stories that mentioned CWA, 41 percent labeled the organization as a conservative one.

Of course, just by declaring something as the mainstream, or the correct way of thinking, doesn't actually make this thing correct. It can muddy the waters for a while, but when called out for dishonesty and underhandedness, we see the today's picture. And now, mainstream media is unable to appeal to a vast majority of Trump voters even in issues they are quite credible and have the moral high ground. Unfortunately, they are learning the moral behind the story of the boy who cried wolf – which is, in its essence, a great loss of credibility.

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