Is Media Bias Real?

By Warren Cole Smith   •   July 14, 2016

CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviews Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi June 14 in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. A number of media observers have challenged the objectivity of Cooper’s questions.

In a scene from Star Wars, stormtroopers—the bad guys—are looking for Han Solo.  They think R2D2 and C3PO might provide clues, but Jedi master Obi-Won Kenobi says authoritatively:  “These are not the droids you are looking for.” They are the droids they seek, but the weak-minded stormtroopers repeat, “These are not the droids we are looking for” and move on.

This scene reminds me of the media’s power over the way we think. We often accept uncritically and submit sheepishly to what they say—just as the stormtroopers did before Obi-Won.

If mainstream journalists shared our worldview, accepting their message might not be so bad. But they don’t.

Are Media Biased?

“On The Media,” a weekly National Public Radio (NPR) program, dedicated several episodes in 2011 to whether NPR itself is biased. Not surprisingly, NPR found that NPR wasn’t biased.

Objective observers come to a different conclusion. Former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg blew the whistle on media bias with his best-seller, Bias: A CBS News Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News. He concluded: “We don’t sit around in dark corners and plan strategies for how we’re going to slant the news … It comes naturally to most reporters.”

Michael Cromartie agrees. Cromartie is an evangelical Christian and a vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also runs the Faith Angle Forum, which educates journalists about religion and public life. He says, “For most mainstream reporters, covering religion is like traveling to a foreign land. Most have a secular upbringing, and attended secular universities. The best of them are curious, but almost everything they see when they look at religion and church is new and strange.”

In short, journalists are not like most of us, and Americans have grown to mistrust them. A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that “negative attitudes [toward the press] are at record levels.” Americans believe journalists lack fairness (77 percent), are unwilling to admit mistakes (72 percent), engage in inaccurate reporting (66 percent) and have a political bias (63 percent). Also, 42 percent of Americans think the press is immoral.

Not a Conspiracy, But Real Nonetheless

There is no smoke-filled back room where such journalists conspire to malign Christianity; the bias springs out of who they are. Here’s how this bias shows up:

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Story Selection. The stories journalists choose to tell matter enormously. During this year’s March for Life, a blizzard pounded Washington, D.C. Media extensively covered this “snowpocalypse,” but virtually ignored the thousands who marched anyway—indicating a vitality and commitment in the pro-life movement. One publication that did cover the march, The Federalist, led with: “Journalism 101: when a crowd of thousands gathers to demonstrate or protest, it is news. When members of the crowd come from across the country despite … a blizzard, it’s not just news, it’s a great story. Yet, looking at the front pages of major American news websites yesterday, you’d have no idea this massive gathering was taking place.”

Media Framing. What journalists leave in and leave out—called “framing” a story—makes a huge difference. When Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in 2012, the Associated Press did not mention the relief efforts of churches and ministries before governmental agencies could step in. These faith-based efforts, covered by Christian publications, saved lives and relieved suffering. However, the mainstream media’s coverage allowed us to believe the church was absent and only government solutions mattered.

Choice of Sources. Because mainstream reporters don’t know many Christians, they quote only prominent, loud and shrill voices. In 2002, Virginia Tech professor Jim Kuypers studied coverage in 116 newspapers.

He found these papers often omitted reasonable conservative voices and highlighted “radical” conservative voices. Yet those same papers ignored “radical” liberal voices and highlighted the most reasonable-sounding liberal voices. The result: even when two views are equally represented, the liberal view seems more reasonable. This explains why Westboro Baptist Church’s demonstrations at military funerals get covered, but the work of Christian groups to help military families does not.

Technology. Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves To Death, said not all media are created equal. Smoke signals, for example, can show presence and initiate communication, but they cannot teach theology. Likewise, Facebook memes or 45-second television news stories cannot explain complex ideas. As Michael Cromartie noted, “You can’t explain a worldview with a Tweet.”

So What Is A Christian To Do?

The Christian worldview doesn’t seem to get a fair hearing. But as Chuck Colson said, “Despair is a sin for the Christian.” Christians should see past the “doom and gloom,” because there is much to be
hopeful about. Thanks to technology, there are more ways than ever for Christian voices to be heard.

And when you read a discouraging or biased news story, remember that one story is not the whole story. After all, the headline on the great story of the universe is this: “God Wins.”  ©2016 Warren Cole Smith

Warren Cole Smith is vice president of mission advancement at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Four Ways to Be a Thoughtful Consumer of Media:

  1. Get your news from a variety of sources. Find a trusted Christian news source and make it part of your media diet.
  2. Be wary of stories that predict the future. Telling us what will or might happen is much more prone to bias. For example, after HB 2 passed in North Carolina, a law protecting women and children from sexual exploitation by requiring people to use the bathrooms of their biological gender, the Charlotte Observer published a list of events that “might” be canceled because of the law, including the NBA All-Star Game. That did not happen, but the stories generated fear and affected policy makers.
  3. Ask questions about news stories. Did they quote responsible Christian voices? Who or what was left out of this story, and why?
  4. Does the Bible speak directly to the issue? There’s nothing in the Bible about whether the U.S. should have an arms embargo against Vietnam, but it does speak directly to a wide range of issues that are relevant today, like life, marriage, justice and money.