Mass Media in a Bipartisan Age
by Morgan LaMere | published Mar. 5th, 2020
Whether we like it or not, Americans live in an age of bipartisanism, where the separation of an aisle is more important than a country, calls of fake news permeate everyday life and trust in public officials has been eroded to nonexistence. The mainstream media, a supposed beacon of free speech and truth amid an ever-shifting political landscape, is frequently called into question by both its viewership and politicians citing claims of bias and twisting the truth to fit a predefined narrative.
Party Lines in News
“Audiences and journalists might define bias differently,” said Andrea Hickerson, the director for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of South Carolina. “The general idea is that something isn’t objective … something has a slant, and I think the assumption is it’s on purpose.”
While many popular news sources claim they provide unbiased stories — few actually follow up. Bias is most commonly introduced to a story by the way it’s told in certain phrasing or words that can mislead the audience. It also comes into play when a story is told and then an opinion is given with the intent to sway an audience.
When people think of biased news, it’s most common to point the finger at Fox News and CNN, often viewed as unfiltered mouthpieces for the Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Similar to politics, followers of each tend to fervently defend their own news station while attacking the other for biased coverage.
“I think that there are biased news sources; I think what may even be a bigger problem is that the public seems to believe there is a lot of bias,” Hickerson said. “The public believing that the bias is there is more problematic than biased media itself.”
“The public believing that the bias is there is more problematic than biased media itself.”
In our current system, the public relies on the media to provide them with the unfiltered truth. The media in question is one of the public's only ways of staying engaged and educated about politics and what’s going on in our country. When that trust begins to erode and individual stations become unreliable to some, a sort of factionalism forms along party lines, only deepening the partisan divide that already existed.
“The big problem is that perceptions of bias erode trust. If you believe the media is biased, you’re less likely to believe what it says,” Hickerson said.
“There is no such thing as his truth or her truth: there is only one truth and anything else is subjective opinion.”
As politicians’ truths veer from one another, media tends to follow, reporting the beliefs and statements of the few over the story at large. There is no such thing as his truth or her truth: there is only one truth and anything else is subjective opinion.
As the perception of news outlets change, people shift their attention elsewhere to find their news. This in part has led to the advent of social media as a legitimate source of news. Social media is comprised of many interpersonal connections, but the ideas and stories shared aren’t just limited to friend groups — they are shared to the world.
“[Social media] is a huge influence. If we trust someone, we believe them more,” Hickerson said. “It’s not just you sitting with your mom at the dinner table, it’s you telling on Facebook what your mom said to everyone else and saying that must be true.”
This partial replacement of traditional media with social media leads to inaccurate and reactionary news stories that lose important context while spreading almost instantly. In the recent past, inflammatory stories have spread across the internet and are immediately taken as the truth to those that already fit their predefined narrative on both sides, holding to this even when it's proven false.
Traditional media has also shifted to a quick-paced environment of reporting, focusing on being the first to an important story instead of being the best. Between a biased media and quick-firing Twitter posts flooding the internet, it’s not hard to see how the average consumer could be swayed, falling unintentionally into the echo chamber of one side or the other.
Can We Fix It?
Unfortunately, many of these issues have stayed prevalent throughout history.
“Press was always very partisan, objectivity didn’t come about till the 1920s,” Hickerson said. “[When] people talk about the old days of media, it’s a nostalgia for something that never existed.”
While the television has influenced media, there has always been economic and political pressure on media to tell a certain narrative, Hickerson suggested. The first mass-produced media was a commercial enterprise designed to make a certain group or thing look more appealing, but in reality, it’s mostly fabricated. Despite the variety of sources of modern-day media, they seem to fall under a few defined ideas.
“One paradox is that we have so many different news sources and we think, 'Oh there is such a diversity of voices out there,' and there’s really not. Most people fall around the mean of ideas,” Hickerson stated.
We as consumers expect objectivity and facts from news outlets, and a lot of that comes from taking the time to follow good practices and interview the right people. According to Hickerson, good media organizations invite critics and listen to them. Luckily, there are still many good sources of news, both nationally and regionally, that can be found just under the surface of the big names.
By asking better questions and holding the media responsible, consumers can influence the more biased networks to falling in line.
“We need the public to be an active member … we need to be better active consumers,” Hickerson said. “The media, because it’s a business, will respond to us.”
While holding media to the standards they should already be at is a good step, it’s equally important to be able to share stories and ideas amongst ourselves.
“We need to be able to have conversations with individuals — that can change people's minds much more than reading something online,” Hickerson stated.
While difficult, being open minded and withholding judgement is a core ideal of our political system. Without that joined purpose and good nature, we fall from being the home of freedom and acceptance, to be a den for partisanship and hatred.