Groundless perception of news media widens political divide

I have some breaking news about our news: it’s been “fake” this whole time.

In an age where extreme news outlets such as MSNBC and Fox News reign supreme on our television screens, it’s tempting to think that we live in an era of unparalleled journalistic deception. But this simply isn’t the case. Ever since the birth of the U.S., partisan media has been the norm. As Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor of Public Policy and Government at Georgetown University, said in his first book “Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters”, “The existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment [in the U.S.] is a historical anomaly.”

Before the twentieth century, only independent journalists were able to impose politically “unbiased” standards on their bigger, wealthier contemporaries. As smaller news organizations got bigger over time, so did the idea that news needed to be fair and balanced. In 1923, The American Society of Newspaper Editors finally codified an impartiality clause into their ethical code: “News reports should be free from opinion of any kind.” It’s still the standard today.

But for as long as the free press has existed in this nation, it’s been almost a requirement for politicians to criticize any negative coverage of their parties. Whether it be former President Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” to President Donald Trump’s denunciation of all critical coverage as “fake news,” the attitude remains the same. In the minds of many Americans, particularly conservatives, the established news outlets fail to represent their “minority” beliefs. But the evidence for this is inconsistent. And if we continue to view the press through the lens of bias, our democracy will become further eroded by the strength of political polarization.

In general, studies attempting to quantify and measure bias in news content as a whole have not consistently found evidence of liberal or conservative slant. In one of the most famous studies, conducted in 2005 by Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, professors of economics at George Mason University and the University of Missouri, respectively, comparisons were made between the sources of mainstream news outlets and sources that Congressional members used. The study found that members tested cited disproportionally from sources favored by Democrats. However, a repeat of the study done in 2011, conducted by John T. Gasper, an assistant professor of Political Science at Carnegie Mellon, found that the same outlets seemed to be more moderate in the years following the original study. This is partially due to individuals still responding to information with their own perceptions of bias. In a study conducted by two liberal arts professors from Ohio State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, groups of registered Democrats and Republicans were asked to view the same news footage and share their thoughts. The professors found that although the footage was exactly the same, the registered Democrats tended to view it as more favorable toward Republican candidates and the registered Republicans felt the opposite.

These perceptions present a major problem: when faith in news declines, partisan media grows stronger. Because American conservatives most often call out liberal bias in news, their representatives begin to cite only well-known, explicitly conservative sources in an attempt to garner more support. The result has been the formation of a conservative media bubble.

This is worsened by the fact that many media watchdog groups, who fact check media outlets, are fueled by a political agenda. For example, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is a self-described progressive organization. This traditional partisan mindset leads to a blind mistrust of the media, calling facts into question when they shouldn’t be disagreed upon in the first place. Many Americans don’t or can’t take the time to discover the truth for themselves, and media outlets prey on this lack of knowledge and insecurity. When the major news outlets are encouraged to be polarizing, our democracy erodes.

The partisan approach to news is also just plain unfounded. Just because something is biased to a reasonable degree, doesn’t mean that it cannot hold legitimate fact. This idea spawns from one of the most common logical fallacies: the appeal to bias. But there is a limit; journalists must provide adequate sources and information to make a credible statement. Factual reporting is crucial for honest journalism. If a news organization no longer follows standards set by the industry, it loses its integrity.

If we continue on the path of viewing news outlets with our strong partisan mindset, we could end up replacing honest journalism with something much worse: radical partisan media. If we are to have a prosperous and healthy democracy, we must be able to go past ideological lines and agree on an objective truth- one presented by good journalists who are held up to the same objective standard. After all, our nation is only furthered if we are able to argue with facts that are agreed upon, under the same, commonly held rationality. And so, for the greater good of the country, let’s rebuild truth. And let’s start by trusting honest journalists.