Essay: Information Biases in News Media

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At its essence, news can be summed up as the constant flow of knowledge from person to person in a perpetual cycle of suggested importance: “breaking news;” “more news at six;” “that’s news to me;” “have you heard the news?” At times it seems like everything and anything is news, from 24-hour television stations to incessant Internet bloggers to social media updates by family and friends. News is as societal as it is informational, connecting members of a community through shared interests. There is, however, a necessity for these people to be able to trust their sources of news. Professional news outlets earn this trust by maintaining a tradition of reporting supposedly unbiased information. Unfortunately, it is nigh impossible to be absolutely objective while narrating any story, even if it’s based in fact. Although many are skeptical of news media, it is often only the plainly visible ideological biases that are noticed by consumers. But bias is more complex than merely a conservative or liberal slant–journalistic bias is in fact most typically present in the way the story itself is told. Even though they are influential to the way these media messages are decoded, the most important information biases as defined by W. L. Bennett in The Politics of Illusion often remain undetected. To discover these biases, one only has to look as far as the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the New York Times. Through each newspaper’s coverage of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of the “Anti-Gay Bill,” one can respectively find evidence of dramatization, fragmentation, and authority-disorder bias, ultimately confirming the presence of information bias in these professional journalistic articles.

One of the most prominent and easily detectable information characteristics of the news is dramatization, or the occurrence in which news is presented in a sensational narrative to engage the readership. Bennett (2007) noted that this format is frequently used in American journalism, allowing for an emphasis on “the present over the past or future, and the personalities at [the story’s] center” (p. 41) but often overlooking in-depth societal analyses in favor of visually appealing images. In the article from the Chicago Tribune, this bias is evident in the personality painted on the “actor” of this story’s “plot,” the lack of a sustained discourse about it’s implications, and the use of video to lend action to the story. From the start, the article presents the reader with a dynamic and almost heroic main character: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. Amidst “mounting pressure to veto the measure” and “gay-rights activists rallying outside the capitol,” Brewer indeed vetoes the bill, slaying the proverbial dragon to win “another high-profile victory… for gay rights” (Reuters, 2014). Here, one can see the dramatic plot created out of an otherwise straightforward event. Instead of presenting Brewer’s speech about the veto simply, the author embellishes it with connotative words, lending her a specific tone that causes the reader to decode the speech as if it was as exciting as a soap opera plot twist. The article also fails to provide a comprehensive inquiry about marriage equality, instead highlighting the visually evocative protest in a minute-long news clip. The interviews given in the video and lack of investigation in the article itself are concerning mainly because they both serve to simplify the story and do not offer the reader much room to think on the topic, which is becoming more relevant as “several changes in U.S. demographics [e.g. an increase in college graduates] lead to more positive attitudes toward homosexuality” (Loftus, 2001, p. 764). Through the vivid characterization of Governor Brewer in tandem with the selection of a video instead of an analysis, one can infer that the Chicago Tribune’s article caters to the reader and provide an exciting but fundamentally shallow narrative, thus exhibiting dramatization.

Due to the increasing spatial limitations placed on newspapers in an attempt to retain their readership, fragmentation has become a common bias both in print and online media. Fragmentation does exactly what one would think–it breaks up stories by separating them from their background information, which Bennett (2007) noticed comes from a focus on individuals rather than facts which makes it “difficult to see the cause of problems, their historical significance, or the connections across issues” (p. 43). In the article from USA Today, this bias is shown through its’ emphasis on the characters rather than their contexts and the detachment from a detailed explanation of the issue’s causation. Due to the fragmentation, the event feels isolated and over with, as if the people mentioned in the story have already moved on from the issue. The article name-drops several people including Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Mitt Romney. While the article states these figures are against the bill, it does not mention the political implications behind their opposition, thus further cutting the story off from the bigger picture. The reader also doesn’t get a good sense of the actual content of the vetoed bill, which is important if he/she wants to have all the accurate information. The beginning of the article said the bill “would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gays and others based on religious beliefs” whereas the end states “the bill did nothing more than try to assure that laws could not force people to violate their faith unless there is a compelling governmental interest” (Nowicki, Sanchez, and Rau, 2014). There is no clear definition of what the bill exactly proposed, so reader is unable to understand its’ implications outside of this story and these two opposing opinions. In addition, the text fails to provide the reader with a sense of the larger meanings beyond these events, further disengaging him/her from the story’s impact. Clearly, this USA Today article only offers the reader a slice of the event, shortened to appeal to deficient attention spans and lacking any political or historical contexts, thus causing the text to exhibit fragmentation.

Within the news trends of the past ten years, the appeal of depicting politicians in a positive light has drastically dropped. Although politicians continue to attempt to restore order during times of crisis, journalists now seek to challenge their ability to fulfill their promises in part to create drama within the story. The prominence of authority-disorder bias in news coverage stems from the ease with which this narrative can be implemented on any story. Bennett (2007) suggests that this bias is caused by the fixation of the news to focus on the restoration of order in society, leading to “related questions of whether authorities are capable of establishing or restoring it” (p. 43). This article from the New York Times is a prime example of authority-disorder bias; rather than focus on the veto itself, it focuses on the impact it caused within the Republican Party and their apparent inability to return to a state of normalcy. Primarily, the article calls out several Republican authority members in relation to their stance on the bill, using testimonies from Florida Governor Rick Scott and Mitt Romney along with others to highlight the “stirring alarm” in Republican ideology. Instead of framing the story in an even, factual manner, it prefers to look to these authority figures’ opinions to make the story seem more sensational and therefore interesting.  The author also cleverly disguises critique of the bill’s proponents within the commentary offered by those interviewed. Quotes saying that opposition to gay rights is viewed as “a violation of individual liberty” and “just makes the party look small and out of touch” (Nagourney, 2014) provides evidence for the aspect of this bias to negatively portray politicians. Along with the emphasis placed on hot-button words such as “battle,” “defeat,” and “discrimination,” the article uses the authority-disorder formula to address the issue as an instance of political chaos. By noticing the appearance of prominent politicians as a plot device to question their competency along with the restoration of normalcy in society, this New York Times article validates its’ use of authority-disorder bias to give the story credence.

The appearance if information bias in media is certainly not new; however, because of the decreasing prominence of newspapers and the desire to keep what readership they have, dramatization, fragmentation, and authority-disorder are becoming increasingly easier to spot, although the common reader may not have the knowledge of these biases and thus remain ignorant to them. Through the news coverage of a single event across three different media outlets, one can discern the wide applicability of these biases in the news. If this trend of using biases to make a narrative more appealing continues, there is a possibility that in straying away from the truth, newspapers will lose the public’s trust completely and become obsolete. Although newspapers have been a mainstream source of information for decades, even today one can see their relevancy diminishing in the contrast to that of the Internet. Alternatively, the biases in the news media have the potential to negatively influence the readers, perhaps conditioning them to accept stories that contain Bennett’s biases as face-value truth. This blurring of lines between a story and the news could lead to a loss of journalistic objectivity, although H. S. Thompson (1972) would argue that “with the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as objective journalism” and that “the phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” News media does possesses the competence to make an effort against informational biases—perhaps the place to start is in relinquishing drama in favor of expanding upon the given facts. Although this move is risky due to economics, maybe people would pay to read stories that are genuinely important and well researched rather than merely sensational. The hope that absolutely unbiased news coverage can be achieved is nigh impossible; however, steps can and should be taken in order to mitigate their blatancy and provide news sources that work as a force of good to inform and educate the public.

References

Bennett, W. L. (2007). News Content: Four Information Biases that Matter. News: The Politics of Illusion (7th ed., pp. 32-72). New York: Pearson Longman. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from https://ctools.umich.edu/access/content/group/29e89de3-70b5-4785-90f2-d1726e2499c2/Readings/Bennett.pdf/

Loftus, Jeni. (2001). America’s Liberalization in Attitudes toward Homosexuality, 1973 to 1998. American Sociological Review, 66 (5), 762-782.

Nagourney, A. (2014, February 27). Arizona Bill Allowing Refusal of Service to Gays Stirred Alarm in the G.O.P.. The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/us/arizona-bill-allowing-refusal-of-service-to-gays-stirred-alarm-in-the-gop.html?hp&_r=0/

Nowicki, D., Sanchez, Y., & Rau, A., The Arizona Republic. (2014, February 26). Arizona governor vetoes anti-gay bill. USA Today. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/02/26/arizona-governor-vetoes-anti-gay-bill/5849187/

Reuters. (2014, February 27). Arizona anti-gay bill vetoed by governor. chicagotribune.com. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-arizona-anti-gay-bill-20140226,0,1862609.story/

Thompson, H. S. (1973). Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books.

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