Media Bias? ‘Fake News’

(Or Are Political Supporters And the Smith’s and Jones’s of the U.S. Paranoid?)

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

There is one issue that Republicans, Democrats, independents and people who have no interest in politics should be able to agree on: Today, the claim of media bias is led by President Trump, his “see no evil, hear no evil” press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s surrogates, and the right and left wings talk show media.

Another point that everyone, regardless of their political affiliations should be able to agree on is that technological advances have given a larger soapbox to allegations of media bias than ever before, but the original sin is ancient history.

Students of history should know that claims of media bias in our country dates back before the founding of the United States. Let’s face it: When Thomas Paine wrote his famous pamphlets, “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis,” there were plenty of Americans who thought the author was biased against England.

People knowledgeable about journalism, know that any reporter can write a lede and body of an article many ways without distorting any information and still be accused of bias by readers who don’t like the order of the included facts, even though the writer does not have any biases.

Today, largely because of the yellow journalism practices of cable TV commentators and journalists, both on the right and the left, virtually every report is considered biased by someone.

One example that I often relate happened when I had my first job in public relations. It was with a Republican PR firm and I worked on local, state and presidential campaigns in the days when conservative Democrats controlled Congress, (now controlled by extremist” hear no evil, see no evil, do evil” right wing Republicans, in my admitted biased opinion.)

It was in the closing days of a tight presidential election when someone almost foaming from his mouth came running in with a newspaper that had a picture of the Pope blessing a crowd. Beneath the photo was another picture and story of the Democratic candidate. “Look at this, the Pope is blessing the Democrat. You have to do something,” he shouted to the PR staff. Of course, there was nothing we could do, we explained. Moreover, we said, the newspaper in question was a strong supporter of Republican candidates; its first page had considerably more positive stories about all the GOP candidates. And the opinion columnists and editorial writers were constantly writing columns praising GOP candidates and attacking the Democrats. (Conclusion: Bias was in the eyes of this individual.)

  • But bias is not always an illusion – especially in political journalism.

On cable TV, it’s easy to recognize bias. (An easy way to determine bias is to hear the commentary of Fox TV opinion commentators and compare what they say to Fox’s hard news reporters. Then you decide what’s fair and balanced.)

In print journalism, it can be more difficult for readers to decipher.

Below are several facets of print journalism that cause readers to claim bias:

  • The placement of stories: Bias accusers believe that negative stories regarding their candidates are placed on page one while negative articles about candidates they dislike are buried on page 34.
  • Assignment of stories: Bias accusers believe reporters are only assigned to look for negative stories about candidates the accusers prefer.
  • Length of stories: The length of stories, not the news value in them, is a sign of bias by accusers.
  • Quotes: Always a sore point by people who see bias. Who was quoted, how long was the quote and the placement of it in a story are questioned.

But the use of photos and headlines in hard news stories are two of the easiest ways to determine bias in journalism.

  • Photos: Bias accusers believe that the determining factor of which pictures are used shows the bias of the selecting editor. In this case, they may be correct. (The advent of color photographs in newspapers added a new claim by people who see bias in every editorial decision. Pictures of candidates in color are obviously selected to show who the editors prefer, the bias ghost hunters feel.)
  • Headlines, Pictures and Stories: The way they are written is a sure sign of bias, according to some people, including me. An example is a New York Times story on October 13, 2018, with a four column headline reading, “Israeli Forces Kill 7 Palestinians in Gaza Border Clashes.” A pull-out read,” A death toll of about 200 Palestinians in six months of protests.” A few days later, on October 18, a Times story was headlined, “After Rocket Hits House, Israel Strikes Gaza Sites.” That shows there isn’t any bias, because both Israel and the Palestinians were blamed in separate stories, a person might say. Not so fast, Charley. The second story had a three column picture of a wailing Palestinian mother whose child was killed during the Israeli response. (If the headline and pull-out doesn’t provide a biased opinion in the initial story, which could have been written and headlined many different ways, and a three column picture of the distraught Palestinian family in the second article does not show bias I don’t know what does.) Then, on October 30, the Times ran a story titled “Thousands Mourn 3 Palestinian Boys Killed in Israeli Airstrike.” This story was accompanied by a huge five column picture showing the three victims.

Another image was captioned, “Palestinian protesters in Gaza on Monday protected their faces from tear gas fired by Israeli troops.” The problem with this picture was that no where could      you see the tear gassing described in the picture. It wasn’t until the fourteenth paragraph that the story said, “Gaza militants fired nearly 40 rockets into southern Israel between Friday night and Saturday morning, and the Israeli Air Force retaliated with strikes on more than 90 unmanned militant targets in Gaza.” The following graph detailed rocket fire, incendiary balloons and mortar fire from Gaza causing hundreds of fires in Israel. Another example that provides a good case for people claiming that the New York Times is biased in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian situation: In its November 12, 2018, edition, a story was headlined, “Deadly Israeli Gaza Raid Threatens New Cease-Fire.” The article was accompanied with a photo captioned, in part, “An Israeli tank in October.”

A few days ago, in its April 29, 2019, paper, the New York Times ran a story headlined, “Times Apologizes for Printing Anti-Semitic Cartoon,” which was widely condemned internationally. This was followed by several days of mea culpa articles and the Times publisher saying the paper will update its  bias training to include anti-Semitism. (Question: Did the publisher just wake up from a Rip Van Winkle snooze to acknowledge the rise of anti-Semitism?)

The Times has long been accused of being biased against Israel in its reporting. (Media bias, of course, is subjective, especially when the subject is politics). On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, called the paper “a cesspool of hostility” While I disagree with Dermer’s choice of words, I do think the entire scope of how the Times covers the Israeli-Palestinian situation deserves to be reviewed by the Times publisher.

Also, anti Israel bias by CNN was evident on Saturday. When reporting about rockets from Gaza being launched into Israel, followed by an Israeli response, one of the CNN headlines said, “Baby & Mother killed in Israeli Airstrike.” A more accurate  headline would have been, “Israeli responds to rocket attacks from Gaza.”

  • Burying the news: This tactic is perhaps the one most used and it is largely inefficient. An example of what I consider overt media bias resulted from a major report saying that global warming will result in an economic loss in the United States as well as threatening the planet. The report, which contradicted the political position of President Trump, received major coverage in prominent print pubs and on cable television, the exception being Fox, which has turned into a public relations agency for the president. The White House attempted to lessen its media coverage by releasing the report on Black Friday, resulting in media reporting saying the president was trying to reduce coverage.

While most cases of bias in reporting from major newspapers are unfounded, bias does exist, especially when reporting on hot button issues, like the ones described above and below. (In some cases the way articles are headlined, written and presented with pictures are deliberately biased. But in most cases, I believe, bias is in the eyes of the readers because they don’t like stories they disagree with, even if they are 100% accurate.)

Any fair-minded person who pays even scant attention to the political scene knows that there is bias in the coverage of President Trump by the so-called mainstream media (as there is bias against Democrats by the right wing media). But the question is which came first? Trump claiming that the mainstream media was treating him unfairly, or the media responding to his claims of “fake news.” As a close observer of the political news scene and the once daily White House press briefings, I side with the media, which riled Trump and his spokespeople by consistently correcting their false claims. (But I also believe that many of the TV pundits that continually attack Trump secretly wish that he’ll be reelected next year because if he is defeated they’ll have nothing to talk about but hurricanes, killings and fires.)

In our business, I’ve heard many practitioners, whose job it is to place stories or gain TV interviews, claim that the reporters must have a bias because “my pitches” are always turned down.”

It’s true that some reporters look more favorably on some PR people than others. (All humans have favorites.) But that is largely because the journalists knows they can trust the person not to provide inaccurate, incomplete, false information or fudge facts and, just as importantly, don’t waste reporter’s time by pitching fluff instead of solid stories that work for both the client and the reporter.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.

 

 

 

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