What’s the news media’s biggest bias?
If you’re a Trump supporter, you might say it’s assuming collusion with Russia behind every presidential move.
For a non-Trump conservative, maybe you see the media giving a free pass to every failing of the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Moderate liberals might blame the media for giving so much coverage to every pronouncement in a Trump tweet or speech, before the 2016 election and during his administration.
And progressives might fault the money behind every media empire for creating a pro-business, or at least a pro-capitalist, bias.
There’s some truth in each of those observations, and plenty more reasons to fault the media. But we tend to miss the media’s biggest bias, and it’s equally strong in left-leaning and right-leaning publications.
The media’s biggest bias is contrived significance. You are not going to read, watch or listen to a news item unless it tells you something significant. And you are not going to subscribe to a media outlet unless it has news items you want to read, watch or listen to.
“The mayor held a news conference this morning and said nothing worth anyone’s attention” is not an acceptable lead for a news item. From the publication’s point of view, it’s better to make something the mayor said sound fresh and new. Better yet if it can stir a controversy, or mark the start of a trend.
So the bias is to make things seem bigger than they are. When the stock market has a bad/good day, maybe that’s the start of a bear/bill market.
The significance bias existed when I was a newsman 50 years ago, but today’s digitized and polarized 24/7 media have given it a booster shot. As I write this, I’m seeing a news alert from the Daily Caller about a bill being introduced in the House of Representatives to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). First, the story was premature. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, had announced that he planned to introduced the bill, but he had not yet done it. Second. a lot of bills get introduced.
In the 114th Congress — from January 6, 2015, to January 3, 2017 — United States House and Senate members introduced 12,063 bills and resolutions, and just 329 of them became law. That’s less than 3 percent. So far in the current Congress, the rate is even lower. So a single congressman introducing a bill is hardly worth interrupting my day with a news alert. I didn’t need that information urgently, but it’s in the Daily Caller’s interest to encourage me to think I do.
Someone at that right-leaning website believed I’d be shocked by the bill even before it was introduced. If I saw a similar news alert from, say, the left-leaning Daily Kos, an editor there might expect me to raise a cheer. Either way, the bias is for contrived significance. The introduction of a new bill — or intention to introduce one — without widespread discussion and support is close to meaningless.
A half century ago, we got our news mostly from local newspapers, plus community radio and TV. Then came cable news, the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and everything you ever wanted to know (or didn’t) delivered to your smartphone. We no longer needed the traditional media to deliver the “what happened.” Fighting to retain a market, they transitioned to “how,” “why” and “what to do about it.”
Local interpretation took a backseat to national and worldwide political analysis. Media outlets now generally play to an ideological core audience, not a geographic one. So contrived significance transitioned from “Residents Fear Serial Killer in Smallville” to “Fewer Guns/More Guns Needed to Curb U.S. Violence.”
In our polarized nation, what we’re hearing in our echo chambers is the sound of contrived significance bouncing off the walls and each other. A local restaurant asks the president’s press secretary to leave. I do believe that has some real but limited significance. For some, it was an act of incivility. For others, it was a brave protest. But it was an individual incident. Until…
Until the echo chamber of red and blue activists, politicians and media contrived to turn it into pro and con crusades.
Human nature and media economics don’t lend themselves to totally eliminating contrived significance, but it can be toned down. I believe there are still writers, editors, publishers, bloggers, TV and radio personalities, and other assorted pundits who really want a healthy democracy in the United States. We need to remind them of a responsibility to, at the very least, do no harm.
We all know what happened to Chicken Little.
Mel Harkrader Pine has been a journalist, a corporate public relations executive, and an adjunct faculty member in Journalism at New York University. He’s retired and working as a coordinator for Better Angels.