The media's real bias? It's not what you think
In maintaining this blog, I've often tangled with readers who insist the St. Petersburg Times -- and many other media outlets-- have a political bias. Conservatives say the Times is too liberal; liberals say the Times is too conservative; Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters both accuse the paper of beating up on their hero.
As the Washington Post's Paul Farhi points out in this story for American Journalism Review, any or all of those complaints can be right at times, depending on which media outlets you are talking about and which stories you examine and where they fall in the news cycle. But I've often said news outlets are biased, but not in the political way some imagine.
Here's my list of the real biases that often drive mainstream news reporting, beyond the obvious one: making profits.
Conflict -- Combat draws attention and audience, which is why media outlets have been savoring this drawn-out battle between Clinton and Obama. In February, Hillary Clinton complained of always getting the first debate question; by April, the first 40 minutes of an ABC debate mostly featured tough queries to Barack Obama about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and patriotism. Meanwhile, the continuing fireworks brought record TV ratings and Web page views.
Impact -- Nothing makes a reporter's reputation like a story that brings profound change -- especially in a post-Watergate world. So it was not surprising that the first stories on Wright's pro-black rants — which, ironically, could have derailed a historic black presidential candidacy — played up his incendiary phrases and downplayed context. Wright's rants don't seem to have much to do with Obama's policies or approach -- just like lots of regular churchgoers don't necessarily follow every word their pastor offers from the pulpit. But the continuing press attention given the aggressive sermons made at Wright's former Chicago church was enough to pressure Obama into quitting the congregation.
Popularity -- As every media outlet struggles for advertising revenue and audience, fears of being labeled unpatriotic or worse can restrict coverage. This is a particularly potent dynamic in TV, where local anchors easily can become cheerleaders for everything from the local sports teams to the police and fire departments. On a national level, CBS anchor Katie Couric, among others, said last week fears of the unpopularity of anti-war postures likely softened reporting on the drive to war with Iraq.
Page views -- As online platforms grow, success is increasingly defined by page views and Web links. In a telling sign, one of the only positive comments about Media General's Tampa outlets in a recent report was a note that its Web site, TBO.com, had seen traffic increase nearly 60 percent. And since celebrities, crime, sex and trivial stories drive online interest — guess what dominates the news mix?
Simplicity -- Polls show most people get their news from TV, with its focus on emotional, simple stories. That approach can also bleed into online coverage, where the goal is often to hook readers with bright, attention-getting stories. Small wonder there's so much fumbling on issues of race, religion and gender in today's political coverage — these days, who has time or space for anything that complex?