Maybe We Should Stop Talking about Media "Bias"

The Pew Research Center is out with one of its big reports about news use and politics, and as usual there's a lot of interesting stuff there, if this happens to be your thing. I want to point to one result, about perceptions of "bias" in the news. On one level, it's about what you'd expect: Republicans see a lot of bias in the news, particularly with Tea Party Republicans. That's because they're the most intense partisans, and they've spent 30 years marinating in an ideology that puts their oppression at the hands of a vicious liberal media at its center. But when Pew asked whether respondents prefer "news sources that have no point of view" or sources that "share your point of view," everybody agreed: 65 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Democrats, and 71 percent of independents said that they liked sources that "have no point of view."

Of course, there is no such thing as a news source that has no point of view. But it's pretty clear that to most people, "bias" means little more than "talks about things in ways that make me mad." That can include giving a hearing to views you find disagreeable without pouring contempt on them, for instance. Which, to many, is what constitutes "bias." By that definition, there's no such thing as a source that's biased in favor of your own side—either it agrees with you, or it's biased. It's a fair bet that most of the 36 percent of Republicans who said Fox News is their main source of information don't find Fox biased.

I've spent the last 15 years or so writing about this topic in various forums, and even I get tired of it sometimes. By now it's pretty clear that people's perceptions of what's "biased" have almost nothing to do with reality, and it's almost impossible to persuade them with facts. For instance, many conservatives believe that NPR, home of the civilized chat and the soothing voice, is a hotbed of radical socialist thinking no less partisan in its intentions and content than the Rush Limbaugh Show, and there's really nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. The news can change, but the beliefs about bias won't.

The answer to this dilemma is for journalists to ignore anyone who accuses them of "bias," and for the rest of us with an interest in the media to banish the word from our daily lexicon. There are more important standards, like whether the news is accurate, fair, properly contextualized, and as complete as possible. The news media is a fantastically complex organism, and the failings of its component parts are legion. I've tried arguing in the past that the news has lots of biases, but ideological bias (in the sense of rooting for candidates who share your beliefs about issues and letting that rooting affect your coverage) may be the least meaningful among them. But as long as you're using the word "bias," it's almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion.