Solomon: Pricey Politics, Cheap Media

American journalism has lost its objectivity, and we need it back.

by Ioana Solomon | 11/10/16 12:17am

In an Oct. 26 interview with Donald Trump, CNN reporter Dana Bash noted the president-elect’s large bank account and grilled him on how much money he was willing to spend on advertising in his final two-week sprint towards the White House. Eventually, Trump had to ask Bash to move on to a different question, and in doing so he implied a major — even alarming — flaw in the news and media industry, namely money and what its ramifications are for the journalism that reaches us.

Now, and particularly over the course of this election, money has played too great a role in politics, exposing not just our damaged democracy but also our shallow indifference to truth. Bash’s line of questioning, fixated on Trump’s checkbook instead of his policy outlook, shows how disoriented the media has become. We have allowed money to considerably influence the media and, by extension, popular opinion, resulting in communication that depends more on our wallets than on our minds.

I was born in Romania, a country with even more rampant political corruption than the 2016 presidential election cycle has implied about America. I expected more from journalism in a country with better resources and greater freedoms, one of which is the coveted freedom of speech. Most of all, I expected more from American citizens who keep getting fed outrageously biased information every single day and never wake up to see the truth.

This bias has been confirmed by legitimate research. A 2015 study by Cornell University and Stanford University used a computer algorithm to analyze bias in news outlets based on selections of quotes from public figures. Instead of subjectively assigning bias to news sources, Cornell computer scientist Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his colleagues took a different approach, trying to see if an entirely objective computer could perceive patterns of media bias. They used 2,274 speeches made by President Barack Obama between 2009 and 2014 and analyzed the 275 media outlets that quoted him. After churning through more than 200,000 quotes, the study definitively concluded, “there is systematic bias in the quoting patterns of different types of news sources” that “goes beyond simple newsworthiness and space limitation effects.” In other words, news outlets report the news they want to hear.

On a similar note, a report done by the John F. Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University analyzed news coverage from the 2016 primary races and found that mainstream media outlets were guilty of “journalistic bias.” Not only did the press provide unequal coverage of Democratic and Republican candidates but they also did it while ignoring factual and substantive content. In its over-coverage of the Trump campaign and under-coverage of Democratic candidates (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, in particular), the press contributed to the rise of Trump’s popularity while paying little attention to the Democratic nomination process. Because much of American journalism has come to overemphasize just getting a “good story” and following the most lucrative path instead of policy issues, it has become void of substance. The report estimates that only 11 percent of coverage focused on candidates’ policy positions, leadership abilities or personal and professional histories.

In this election, Sanders and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton were overshadowed by the Republican race and news stories about Trump. However, it is important to note that the American mass media has adopted a pervasive and quantifiable leftwing bias since the 1980s.While Trump appeared in news headlines more frequently than did Sanders or Clinton, stories about him were also more likely to be negative than pure journalistic objectivity would generally allow. Admittedly, I have liberal leanings and a visceral reaction to Trump and all that he stands for, but regardless I expect the news to report news, not political advertisements, and the information I receive to be objective and complete — yet, clearly, that is not the case.

Much of this bias, however, is not entirely deliberate. Rather than producing outright, intentionally false content, news reporters manifest their bias through what they choose not to report. The facts or quotes they omit in order to avoid contradicting the political narrative they are trying to advance are where the real prejudice lies. Media researchers Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo remark that, “for every sin of commission…we believe that there are hundreds, and maybe thousands, of sins of omission — cases where a journalist chose facts or stories that only one side of the political spectrum is likely to mention.”

This media partisanship is obvious, and the extent to which our news sources are polarized is increasing far too rapidly. However, there are those who claim that political leanings balance themselves, canceling out their effects and producing a stabilized battleground of differing ideologies. In theory, this effect should render any of our worries baseless. As a 2012 Washington Post article explained, “left-leaning reporting is balanced by reporting more favorable to conservatives.” The article cites David D’Alessio, a communications sciences professor at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, who claimed that “the net effect is zero.”

But even if biases balance out and the net effect is zero, the fact that our media is just as polarized as our politics is problematic. Most people only pay attention to news sources they already agree with, so this balancing act is lost on the majority of the American electorate. No rational person would claim that, just because Republican extremism balances Democratic extremism, the American political sphere is a healthy one. It is not — and neither is its media.

In the 2016 presidential race, the media’s critical coverage of the Trump campaign and its blatantly optimistic view of Clinton’s chances may have made some potential Clinton voters complacent while making Trump supporters even more desperate to get to the voting booths. Had the news industry produced the fair and neutral journalism that should characterize a sound democracy, this election’s result might have been different.