Psst… I’m going to let you in on a little secret… Just between us…
The media is biased.
Really, it is. Biased from here to eternity. Biased eight ways to Sunday. Slanted like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
“You don’t say?” I hear you saying to yourself. “You know, the sun rises in the East, grass is green and Donald Trump has tiny fingers.”
Let’s interrupt the snarkfest (for the moment) to point out that yes, the media is biased. And while there can be an ideological slant, that’s not the type of bias and slant we’re talking about here.
By its very nature and by its very process, the media is a biased and slanted creature. It’s a creature that is a prisoner of its very nature because of that process. It can’t help itself, no matter how scrupulous, how well-meaning, how conscientious it portrays itself.
The reason for this can be described by two of my favorite Canadians. The first: noted Canadian media historian and intellectual Marshall McLuhan, who coined the famous statement, “The medium is the message.” Translation: that a medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of how we get our information. According to McLuhan, how we get our information is as important as what that information is because the medium that carries that information to us becomes an integral part of the content just by its mere presence and characteristics.
Let’s take this one step further. What you see on your TV while you get ready to go to work, what you hear in your car as you’re driving to work, what you read on your screen once you get to work and what most of you USED to read when you woke up in the morning over your coffee and Cheerios is brought to you by human beings. Human beings who, are, well, human beings, which means they come with built-in biases.
Those biases could be ideological, yes. And we’ll explore those in a future blog post, because, yes, they exist. But in the vast majority of cases across the media spectrum, they are biases based on what to cover, what to devote human power, time, money and effort to covering and what NOT to spend those resources covering.
By choosing not to decide, guess what?
Let’s now welcome in one of my other favorite Canadians: Geddy Lee of Rush, who once sang “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
On “Freewill”, Lee wasn’t singing about what your local TV station decided to cover that day, but those lyrics work perfectly for our point here. If, for example, your local TV station decided to cover a car chase, which – 100% of the time – it will do, that means it may not have the bodies/mobile trucks/etc. to cover, say, a public meeting where people were gathered to protest a school board or city council decision that affects them.
So by that very decision, the media – by choosing not to cover something – still has made a choice.
When it comes to a city council meeting (or any kind of political story that doesn’t involve sex, violence or easy-to-explain-in-90-seconds corruption) vs. a car chase or celebrity event, you don’t have to be Edward R. Murrow to figure out where the resources are going. They’re going where the eyeballs are going.
As someone who worked for newspapers for 17 years and worked in public relations for 13, I can tell you the process isn’t (usually) as sinister as the Right Wing Echo Chamber would have you believe. Especially in this day and age, with newspapers and the printed media clinging to dwindling profit margins by their fingertips – after shedding tens of thousands of reporters and editors over the last 15 years — and even television stations weaned from the fat and happy decades of 50% after-tax profit margins, the vast majority of outlets suffer from laziness and a lack of resources more than they engage in a Great Malevolent Liberal Plot.
Well, isn’t this convenient?
Put another way, it’s often journalism as convenience. Journalism as convenience designed to garner the largest number of eyeballs. This explains Sweeps Months in local TV, which explains why every February, May, August and November, your local news informs you of stories like “Do Fast Food Workers Use Gloves?, “How Safe Are Roller Coaster G-Forces?” with the gravity of the Moon Landing, along with anything remotely oozing of sex, violence, celebrities or corruption. Bonus points if they can somehow get multiples of these variables into one story, meaning if they could somehow break a story of two celebrities engaging in erotic asphyxiation for the pleasure of politicians, well, they’ve hit for the Grand Slam of sweeps-month stories.
And this is why communications schools are now being overrun by public relations majors more than any other communications discipline. That’s where the growth is and good, smart PR folks understand that by making life easier for harried editors and overworked assignment desks who aren’t blessed with reporters unearthing celebrity erotica, they make life easy for their clients.
This is why you often see stories that are little more than video news releases: pre-packaged stories on an event or client that are provided to the TV stations free of charge. It’s also why you see a preponderance of celebrity stories. Any chance you have to drop a Kardashian, a DiCaprio, a Madonna into a story, you take it, regardless of the context.
If it bleeds, it leads: bean-counter edition
Newspapers aren’t immune to this, but for a different reason. Outside of the truly national papers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post, real, labor-intensive investigative journalism has become harder and harder to do. Not impossible, mind you and not because the papers don’t want to do them, but because newsrooms have become the embodiment of that famous speech you hear about at service academies.
“Take a look to the person on your left and the person on your right. Four years from now, one of you won’t be here. …”
The bias isn’t because of the subject matter. It’s because of the process. The bodies aren’t there anymore and those bodies that remain are forced to crank out more copy, tweet more tweets, post more video and otherwise become a walking, talking mobile newsroom. When faced with that, who has the time to devote to time-consuming, labor-intensive investigative pieces?
Remember, it’s all about the eyeballs. You want to know why the media is biased?
Look in the mirror.