Denison Forum on Truth and Culture logo


Is the Media Biased? Does it matter?

Walter Cronkite, on his 64th birthday, anchors his last CBS election night special while broadcasting in New York City on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980. (AP Photo)Objectivity is impossible but fairness is optional.

As the presidential elections heat up, political opponents and their supporters will attack each other incessantly but come together every so often to rail against their common enemy: the media. And they are not alone.

Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center said the media "tend to favor one side" compared with fifty-three percent who said so in 1985. A study released last month by the American Press Institute found that fifty-two percent of adults have "some confidence" in the press, whereas forty-one percent responded by saying they have "hardly any confidence."

"Over the last two decades, research shows the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the news industry," the report from the American Press Institute finds. "The study reaffirms that consumers do value broad concepts of trust like fairness, balance, accuracy, and completeness. At least two-thirds of Americans cite each of these four general principles as very important to them."

Our skepticism has grown towards the media as well as our choices of media mediums. In Pew's research, sixty percent of Baby Boomers get their political news through television, compared to thirty-seven percent of Millennials. But concerning Facebook, sixty-one percent of Millennials get their political news on the social media giant, as opposed to only thirty-nine percent of Boomers.

Facebook has been in the news lately for their alleged skewing of trending stories towards liberal causes. Regardless of whether the allegations are true, only twelve percent of respondents in a recent survey found they trust Facebook "a lot or a great deal." The social media network with the highest trust rating was LinkedIn, with a meager confidence level at twenty-three percent.

An unbiased media is similar to a unicorn—a product of our imagination. Our expectation of an unbiased, completely trustworthy media comes from our fractured nostalgia. There was a time, right after World War II and ending around the Vietnam War, where the likes of Cronkite and Murrow provided an objective respite. But that was an outlier in our two-hundred-plus-year history.   

In the infancy of the American experiment, our media was greatly biased. Thomas Jefferson and Republican leaders had the National Gazette. Jefferson enticed Phillip Freneau to come to Philadelphia to lead the paper. Jefferson, also the sitting Secretary of State, hired Freneau as a translator at the state department. So as a government employee, Freneau led this paper and edited their political content that was often directed against the Federalist Party and President George Washington. Many prominent Republicans contributed articles, often pseudonymously, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

All of this was done to combat Alexander Hamilton, of Hamilton the Musical fame (who also wrote some significant work called The Federalist Papers and was the first Secretary of the Treasury). Hamilton led the rival paper, the Gazette of the United States. This paper was friendly to the Washington administration, as well as Federalist Party policies.

The media was biased then, even more so than the perception of it now.

But the goal of the media should not be unbiased objectivity, but fair and clear communication. Today, news programming is often placed in between opinion shows, serving as the bread in a red meat sandwich. And if the numbers are any indication, each side of the aisle is eating their sandwich voraciously and sharing it greatly—to the chagrin of their Facebook friends and foes alike.

However, we live in a free and open society, where ideas are exchanged and some are adopted. According to James Madison, this is imperative to the flourishing of liberty and democracy. "The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty."

Orville Schell, former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, noted: "In a democracy, indeed in any intelligent society, the media and politicians have to lead. The media should be introducing us to new things, interesting things, things we don't already know about; helping us change our minds or make up our minds, not just pandering to lowest-denominator wisdom."

According to Schell, the media and politicians should lead. But focus groups and opinion polls are manifestations of the reality that they reflect more than they lead. Politicians not only represent us, they reflect us. The media serves up what we ask for. Have you seen the preview for Chappie 2 yet? Politics and media are found downstream of the larger culture. We get what we want; they reflect our desires.

The media may be biased, but Christians must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). We have been admonished to listen closely (James 1:19), seek after truth diligently (Proverbs 2:4–5), and question when appropriate—regardless of who says it or where we hear it. As Augustine noted: "A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found."

Latest News

17304 Preston Rd | Suite 1060 | Dallas | TX | 75252-5618 | 214-705-3710
© 2009-2021 Copyright, Denison Forum. All rights reserved.