Dr. Peffley       

Lecture Outline II:

Constructing the News, Slant and Bias in the News


I.    Media as Gatekeepers to Political Reality: News is inherently selective and slanted, or biased. Selection is endemic to the definition of the news and the news production process.  Question is: what criteria do media use to decide what stories to cover and how to report them? And do these criteria help or hurt democracy?

A.  Caveats:

1.   There is an important distinction between “news slant” and “political bias” in the news.

a)   Slant is defined as more or less favorable news coverage for an individual or group, which can be due to reality as well as bias.

b)   Bias is defined as a distortion from reality and can be shaped by any number of factors that shape the news that may be very hard to distinguish.

2.   In light of the internet, the “Drudge Report,” etc., the gatekeeping power of the elite and popular news media is more diminished, porous and open to varying influences, though still substantial.  

II.   Constructing the news:  What influences the production of the news? 

A.  Broad forces: economic marketplace, governmental pressures (e.g., regulation or lack thereof), organizational processes and journalistic norms (structural bias), and the opinions of individuals (e.g., journalists, editors, owners) who construct the news (political bias).

B.  Criteria for deciding what’s news

C.  Important choices are made in all three major stages of constructing the news: acquisition, conversion and presentation.

D.  Subtle Techniques of “biasing” the news

1.   choose sources

2.   control prominence

3.   solicit, select, quotations

4.   choose which facts to report

5.   frame the meaning of news stories

6.   language, words

7.   pictures

E.  On-line sites for further exploration: How to Detect Bias in the News, News Bias Explored

III.  Is the News Biased?

A.  Journalistic norm of objectivity

1.   Wall of separation between editorials and news coverage

2.   How do journalists operationalize objective coverage?

a)   Sources make the news.

b)   Fair and neutral reporting means there are two sides to every story.

3.   Is Fox News an exception? Film: “OutFoxed!”

B.  Major Types of Bias

1.   Political bias:  political preferences of journalists, editors, owners, and the market may make their way into the news.

2.   Structural bias: organizational pressures that affect decisions of what to cover (i.e., criteria of newsworthiness) and how to report it (e.g., standard operating procedures journalists follow to acquire, convert, and present a story).  Aside from their political views, journalists work in an organization that emphasizes routines and procedures for covering the news.

C.  Problems with studying bias.

1.   Hard to define.

2.   Hard to distinguish between structural bias versus political bias and separate these from the influence of reality, economic forces and governmental pressures.

3.   Hard to measure. Examples of presidential elections.

a)   See The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA)

4.   Hard to generalize over time and across different media

D.  Evidence for ideological slant:

1.   Lichter, Lichter and Rothman: Journalists more liberal than public; editors, owners and producers more conservative?

2.   Dalton, Beck and Huckfeldt’s study of news coverage of the 1992 presidential election and the “hostile media” phenomenon.

3.   Kahn and Kenny’s study of news coverage of senatorial campaigns.

4.   Conclusions

E.  A Closer Look: Structural (production) biases: organizational pressures that affect decisions of what to cover (i.e., criteria of newsworthiness) and how to report it.

1.   How journalists define fair and neutral reporting

a)   Sources make the news. Higher-ranking, “official,” government sources are best.

b)   Fair and neutral reporting means there are two sides to every story, which means sources must be balanced.

c)   Autonomy?  

2.   Criteria by which stories are selected as being “newsworthy” (Doris Gaber, Mass Media and American Politics)

3.   Structural biases in the content of the news, particularly TV (Lance Bennett, News: The Politics of Illusion):

a)   Dramatic versus Analytical

b)   Fragmented versus Historical

c)   Personalized versus Institutional

d)   Authority-Disorder bias

e)   Neglect of major social problems

f)    Examples from the Iraq War and presidential elections