Objective or Biased? The Economics of Our Modern Media

by Michael Kelley

The idea of a free and independent media representing the truth and showcasing both the strengths and weaknesses of America is the ideal for which journalists set the bar. However, journalism is not upheld as an objective medium; instead, the presentation of facts has become entangled with nostalgia. The result of this entanglement is just that: nostalgia. Authors Edward Said in “Clashing Civilizations?” and Mariah Burton Nelson in “I Won. I’m Sorry.” discuss how the media approaches stories through a lens, framing them in such a way as to appeal to the masses rather than convey objectivity. The very functions of the news and journalism have become a business decision, with the purpose of maximizing viewership and expanding an audience. Journalists frame their stories through a moral, social, and political lens that represent the values of the institution that they serve rather than serving journalistic integrity. The news media is unable to offer the public an honest, unbiased account of events due to a lack of depth in reporting, propensity for showmanship, and depiction of American morals and values.

The lack of honesty and integrity in the news begins with a lack of substance in reporting, where the selection of content fails to look at the broad, objective, global picture. On November 21st, the evening newscasts for all three major networks, CBS, ABC, and NBC, began their coverage with “breaking news” of a school bus crash in Chattanooga, TN. The tragic event was cherry-picked from the local news and placed at the top of the broadcast: a lot of fanfare for an isolated neighborhood incident. A subsequent piece about the conflict in Syria that described the on-going fighting—that, most recently, government airstrikes obliterated one of the two remaining hospitals in Aleppo—got less time on the air. The real and continual “humanitarian crisis” with starving people and a dwindling population was placed by the American media, unexpanded and not discussed, behind a small, local issue, appealing to domestic viewers’ perceived limited outlook of the world. Edward Said explained how “pigeonholing” cultures and using “unedifying labels” fail to get at the root of a problem and only play into people’s narrow beliefs (366-7). This demonstrates a premium on stories that, while personally compelling and emotional, lack real qualities of investigative reporting and don’t seek to expand an audience’s mind or world-view.

The lack of depth in the news is compounded with the showmanship and promotion that have become hallmarks of the modern media landscape. Each evening broadcast on November 21st opened up with suspenseful music, “breaking news” headlines, and dramatic titles and images. These headlines—“Strike Threat,” “Deadly Snowstorm,” and “Cop Killer Manhunt”—exaggerated news about the potential for a union strike at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, snow that had reached the Northeast U.S., and the death of a police officer in Houston. Good reporting should rely solely on the facts, facts that will sell themselves and won’t need to be brightly packaged to be interesting to the viewer. And yet—we like shiny things, which is not condemnable but is dangerous. In the earlier instance of the “Humanitarian Crisis,” a flashy title could be attention-grabbing and making an important statement. The phrase, which attempts to invoke both fear and compassion in viewers, could do some good by increasing awareness. The dramatic text could inspire someone to pay attention to the atrocities more frequently, to make a donation to a charity that aids the affected, or to get more involved in the cause. This hypothetical does demonstrate that we, the viewership, care about the “show” and the substance itself. There is nothing wrong with the reporter using promotional tactics to draw people to a story; marketing and promotion make things interesting and bring people to topics that they would never have considered otherwise. However, the nature and scope of the story to which promotion is applied must live up to the “hype,” since aggrandizement can dilute the facts of a story.

In the depiction of those stories, the news media puts its vision of American morals and values on display, a political commentary of its own, thereby distorting its objectivity. One of the fundamental values on display this year was the notion of freedom of expression, vocalized mainly in the media’s criticisms of the incoming Trump administration. Although every network tried to remain objective, each ran pieces about potential conflicts of interest, a “war of words” discussing President-Elect Trump’s Twitter messages, and his new video message released to the American people on the state of the transition. The networks did present the facts and were truthful in their assertions, yet they were still able to introduce political commentary in subtle ways. The articles seemed to have an inherent sense of pessimism and skepticism, rather than the optimistic view that usually comes with a new administration. Editorially, it is a tradition for a news organization to have a particular stance on an individual issue, and that is okay. Reporters are human beings, and it’s hard to devoid oneself completely of personal opinion, particularly when given such a prominent platform to an audience of millions. Yet reporters must realize that with this power and authority comes an important responsibility: the responsibility to present all sides of an issue. Often, this means gathering credible sources from all the parties of an issue, often of which there are more than two, and offer a balanced approach to let the viewer decide where they stand. Another solution could be to make it clearly known when a network is taking an editorial stance; then, the contract between reporter and audience will be unbroken and the latter may be impressed by reporters’ candor.

An opportunity to make a direct appeal and statement to the American electorate is lost, however, when networks display human interest stories in the nightly broadcasts. On this particular night in November, there was a heartwarming story of a 55-year-old man playing college football and another about a resilient foster-care student giving back to his teacher. These stories do play a significant role, highlighting some positivity in a news cycle that is often plagued with sadness and strife, while introducing real people in America to others. However, the time that was utilized could have been allocated for an educational statement to inform the viewers of a topical issue or for further investigative reporting into a major story of the week. What these human-interest stories end up demonstrating, beyond a marketing ploy, is a need for diversity and the assertion of a more liberal political viewpoint on behalf of the networks.

A sense of ongoing political and social activism, the inclusion of marketing and promotion in the selection and depiction of stories and demographics, and the lack of real depth in news coverage makes the modern news media lack a sense of trustworthiness and objectivity. Beyond the fact that they may include things to depict an editorial stance, what they are most guilty of is catering the news to meet market demand. The media sensationalizes the news and focuses on issues that make great headlines but have little substance. In a way, this demonstrates the American mindset, in which the citizenry has become complacent and content, drawing on sensation rather than craving in-depth investigative reporting. Ultimately, it is this lack of depth in our media that is the ultimate concern, preventing people from formulating opinions and allowing generalizations about cultures, genders, ethnicities, and other groups to pervade our society.

Works Cited

“11/21: Deadly School Bus Crash in Tennessee; Scott Pelley Receives 2016 Cronkite Award.” CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. CBS. New York, New York, 21 Nov. 2016. Television.

“11/21/16: Suspect Arrested in Shooting Death of San Antonio Detective.” World News Tonight with David Muir. ABC. New York, New York, 21 Nov. 2016. Television.

Nelson, Mariah Burton. “I Won. I’m Sorry.” Self Magazine Mar. 1998: n. pag. Print.

“Nightly News Full Broadcast (November 21st).” Nightly News. NBC. New York, New York, 21 Nov. 2016. Television.

Said, Edward. “Clashing Civilizations.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology. By Samuel S. Cohen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 365. Print.