Jefferson commented on media bias two hundred years ago. He admitted that media is going to behave unethically if profit was their primary goal. He recommended what later became part of the journalistic code of ethics, but also worried that ethical media was going to struggle in the marketplace because readers prefer information that re-enforces their own individual bias.
Here’s what he wrote to John Norvell in 1807.
To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
That seems to be the state that we are in today. Truth does appear to be hard to come by because there is so much suspicion regarding its source.
I’ve posted in the past about why we find ourselves in this state. It is an outgrowth of the generational dynamics described in the book The Four Turnings. The book predicts the current conflict in the phase the authors call The Unraveling. It’s why we have the growth of narrow cast unethical media and the general distrust of any information source that may call you own personal beliefs into question. It is much easier to simply discount news sources that you don’t agree with as biased rather than dig down into an issue to determine what the facts really are.
When we speak of media bias, I think there is a practical response and a philosophical one.
There is a spectrum of news sources. There are unbiased sources. There are sources that have a point of view but also adhere to a set of journalistic principles that require them to determine what the facts are and report on them. Then there are sources with no journalistic principles that appear to be driven only by the profit potential of appealing to a particular audience.
The CS Monitor does not have a political point of view. They are probably the only major US newspaper who has publically taken that position.
FactCheck.org and Politifact.org (and its spinoffs) are unbiased websites who also have taken a public politically neutral position. Their funding is transparent so you can make sure that they aren’t being influenced financially. They also have a transparent review process to make sure that they don’t suffer internal political “creep” based on the issues that they are addressing. These are NOT news sites. They are sites that hold politicians and the media accountable for factual accuracy.
Most of the major newspapers in this country can reasonably be considered ethical sources. Exceptions include those owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The code that the ethical sources follow means that they are only going to report as fact those things that they can corroborate from multiple named sources. They will do their best to give those with a point of view an opportunity to tell their side of the story. The paper expresses its opinion on the editorial page and that is clearly a separate section of the newspaper. Opinion columnists are clearly labeled as such so even casual readers don’t mistake a columnist’s opinion for a news story. Media organizations who adhere to this ethical standard earn the right to have an opinion because that opinion does not bias the way they report the news. I also suggest that NPR follows this ethical standard.
These are organizations where the lines between opinion and fact are deliberately blurred. From their perspective, everything is opinion and everything is fact. Murdoch is a pioneer in this form of yellow journalism and it has made him a wealthy man. That’s because there is a hunger in the marketplace for media sources which champion conservative causes. In my opinion, though, no matter how noble the end might be, it can’t justify the means of unethical reporting.
The whole “birther” movement is a perfect example of an Internet conspiracy theory that had no basis in fact, needlessly divided the country, and was the subject of supportive “news” stories in the Wall Street Journal (a Murdoch property), The Washington Examiner (owned by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz), and the Investor’s Business Daily (another news source that jumped on the anti-Obama bandwagon).
The claim that there are no unbiased news sources is a red herring that basically serves the interests of those who would prefer that condition. Claiming that all news sources are biased frees unethical sources to continue to blur the line between fact and opinion without the fear of being held accountable. Just one example of this tactic is described in great detail at factcheck.org regarding a claim of bias at snopes.com.
It also frees those who happen to share the opinions promoted by unethical media sources to discount the criticisms/corrections coming from unbiased fact checking organizations or ethical sources. The “Obama is a Muslim” movement is a great example. That particular conspiracy theory was widely debunked and discredited years ago by unbiased and ethical sources. It still is a regular topic of conversation by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and even some Republican presidential candidates. This whole conspiracy was able to protect itself from the unanimous distain it received from the unbiased and ethical media because those invested in this conspiracy believed that all opposing sources were politically biased. The only shred of fact in this whole “big lie” is that President Obama has a Muslim-sounding name.
Truth and Democracy
Jefferson believed an informed electorate was key to an effective democracy.
Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.
I believe that the dysfunctional government that we have today is a direct result of our failure to hold unethical news sources accountable for their actions.
It is our responsibility as a society to demand media sources that meet Jefferson’s criteria of “true facts & sound principles”. It is also our responsibility to hold accountable those who fail this measure because their actions DO weaken the fabric of our democracy.