By Mike Cronin
In the “About” section of this blog, I say that bias is one of the main “filters” we have to apply in our media consumption in order to make sense of it all. The mainstream media (ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and others) are notorious for being biased. The right wing maintains that (with the exception of Fox) the bias is unabashedly liberal. Liberals are certain that Fox News is a propaganda machine for conservative Republicans. There is no shortage of examples of bias to be found on each side; but for us to detect that bias reliably, it might help to first know what a “pure” news story is supposed to be about. The foundation of a news story is its newsworthiness. In Journalism 101 courses throughout the country, students are taught several criteria to apply in order to determine if a story is newsworthy. There are various versions of the model, all of which boil down to roughly the same basics. The version I am familiar with has seven criteria:
Impact: The significance, importance, or consequence of an event or trend. The greater the consequence, or the more people affected, the greater the newsworthiness. “If it bleeds, it leads” fits here. National election results, wars, terrorist attacks, mass murder, natural disasters, and major industrial or transportation accidents are prime examples. 9-11 is the quintessential example.
Timeliness: This is the new in news. The more recently the event happened (or the more recently new information became available about an historical event), the more newsworthy it is. It doesn’t get much newer than when an event is broadcast live (or nearly so) as it happens. On the other hand, one can get headline fatigue when a “Breaking News” or “News Alert” ticker demands attention for reportage of every minor development in an ongoing major story.
Prominence: The doings and antics of prominent people (or corporations, major league sports teams, government agencies, etc.) are newsworthy – because they are prominent. Thus, almost anything a sitting president does is newsworthy, but nothing I routinely do is newsworthy.
Proximity: The closeness of an occurrence, either geographically or in terms of connections or values, is a factor in its newsworthiness. The astronauts making the Apollo 11 moon landing were as far away from us as any humans ever have been, yet they were fellow Americans making momentous history, and that made them “close” in the sense of this criterion. (Of course, the first manned moon landing was newsworthy according to just about all of these criteria!)
Bizarre: The classic “man bites dog” headline is a classic example of the essence of this category. It’s not news when a dog bites a man, but when the tables are turned, the situation is freaky, so it becomes newsworthy. There are entire publications devoted to this critieria:
Conflict: Controversy, drama, hypocrisy from leaders, investigative reports, political wrangling, etc.
Human Interest: Those stories that are funny, charming, cute, heartwarming, or otherwise entertaining fit here. Here’s a great example.
These criteria can give us a “baseline” to use when examining stories for bias. Sometimes it is not what a newscaster or reporter says or doesn’t say that exposes bias, it’s the selection of what is to be reported, or the time span a particular story spends in the headlines. If you read or watch a story that doesn’t seem to meet any of the newsworthiness criteria, or you know of a newsworthy story that has been ignored or downplayed, or you note that story X has received much more coverage than story Y, even though both are newsworthy, you are be observing bias in action.