Lately, I’ve been hearing from students that the news media are “biased” – even the ones I have always thought of as neutral. Until recently, I dismissed this as arising from ignorance of which media were actually objective. I proceeded to introduce them to PBS, NPR, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
But some people think even those media – who at least strive to be objective -are biased as well. Even my beloved sister and husband spot examples. These include questions asked in the Trump interview at the New York Times this week, and questions asked by my heroes Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill on the PBS Newshour, that struck them as “biased.”
Worse yet, my students often cite this perceived bias as an excuse to watch and read no news at all. All media are tarred by the same brush, to them, as if the slight nuances of bias in the media I have cited were equivalent to the partisan rants on Breitbart or the Huffington Post.
I realize that there is bias in everyone. I learned that years ago in Sociology 101. We all have a natural, human tendency to consider some people part of Us and others part of Them. However, there is a huge difference between people who are aware of this tendency and try to counteract it, and people who make no attempt at all to conceal their views or balance their own perspective with others that might lend insight.
I will always attempt to explain this to students, one class at a time, and introduce them to the joys of a daily news habit. I have them sign up for emails from Vox, the Skimm and cleveland.com, and recommend that they sign up for the Washington Post, which offers free subscriptions to anyone with an email that ends in .edu These media are a far cry from the outright bias of partisan propaganda. But we should always be on our guard.
Thus, I am proud of my husband and my sister for pointing out instances of bias in the New York Times and PBS Newshour. Everyone should be vigilant about possible bias in the news. And I’m sure those news outlets would be interested to know about people’s perceptions along those lines. (I’m equally sure they already hear from many, many people whenever they perceive the slightest bias.) In their case, however, I also sincerely believe they take those admonitions seriously and attempt to do better in future. That’s why I’m still watching and reading them. I can’t say that for all media.
I’m worried that the current preoccupation with “fake news” is going to supersede the debate about bias. Both are important, and should continue.