It’s not exactly breaking news to report that Americans don’t care much about the mainstream media. September’s Gallup poll that found just 32 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media simply confirmed what we all knew: that people’s belief in the news was at an all-time low, and ever-sinking.
The seeds of this distrust were sewn long ago, their fruits ripening over time with the emergence of hyper-partisan outlets. As these channels and publications grew in popularity by reinforcing world views and cushioning biases, they offered a new model for doing business, in many cases prioritizing saucy opinion over concrete reporting in the never-ending quest for the proverbial holy grail: ratings.
Ratings, of course, are the be-all and end-all for news organizations primarily financed—as most are—by corporate advertising dollars. For advertisers, the news isn’t about providing consumers with thoroughly sourced information about their elected officials, government, or the world at large; the news is a vehicle to move product and embed logos and slogans and catchy jingles into the subconscious. It doesn’t matter how you rope them in—more viewers equals more advertisers, which equals more money.
This should come as no surprise, of course—America, standing tall and proud as the bastion of capitalistic success, is and always will be driven by profit and corporate interest. Journalism, while intrinsically vital to a democratic system of government that relies on a well-informed populous, is no more impervious than the next industry.
Nevertheless, the seemingly fleeting hope to keep the news independent and objective lives on, both through ideologues (I use this term cringingly) in the news media and watchdog organizations. These media watch firms are not new by any stretch, but may come to serve a larger role in a world where corporate bias shines through newscasts as clearly as ever and the American people’s collective trust in the media is as low as its trust in fast food chains’ healthy alternatives (note: plenty of people still order salads at McDonald’s).
One such organization is Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, or FAIR. Founded in 1986, FAIR is a national media watch organization that offers “well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship,” according to its mission statement. In a nutshell, FAIR identifies stories that come with bias—be it corporate, political, cultural, or otherwise—and offers critique. The idea is to keep media outlets honest, not just in terms of specific biases, but also what is and isn’t covered, as well as who (and more tellingly, who doesn’t) get to participate in a given conversation.
BTRtoday had a chance to sit down with Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR.org, to discuss the importance of independent news, identifying corporate interest and other biases within, and the benefit of consuming information with a healthy skepticism.
BTRtoday (BTR): How common is it to find corporate interest embedded in news stories?
Jim Naureckas (JN): We find that it is pretty standard for stories that affect an industry’s bottom line to be covered with concern for protecting that bottom line. A good example is healthcare. The healthcare industry is another major advertiser, pharmaceuticals in particular are advertised heavily on the news. You don’t see a lot of coverage of the profit margins the health industry makes, and you certainly don’t see a lot of coverage on the idea of moving to a single-payer system, which would be the most efficient way to cut costs but would run directly counter to those profit margins.
BTR: Is corporate interest in news most of what FAIR looks for? When it comes to accuracy in media, does it look at stories that favor a particular bias that comes across clearly?
JN: There’s a range of biases that you find in media, and they range from these kind of advertiser biases to biases toward official power. You tend to see the government being treated as the ultimate source in stories. For example, in stories about police shootings, they rely very heavily on the police themselves as the experts and don’t typically show a lot of skepticism for the version of events put forward by the police.
There are cultural biases that you see, too. The decision makers are still overwhelmingly white males coming from the upper class, and those provide certain cultural biases that you see in news media. A good example of that is the way terrorism is covered. It’s almost always used to describe political violence that is committed by Muslims. When you see terrorism committed by white male Christians, it’s very rarely labeled as terrorism, even though in both cases people are killing to make a political point.
There’s a tendency to want to create an enemy that can be depicted as “other” than the audience. In the United States, the audience is presume to be white, mostly Christian, and Muslims can be portrayed as this foreign force that is threatening this audience. That kind of “us vs. them” approach is a very effective way for building ratings and building an audience that you can sell things to. If you’re selling a product, it’s good to have people thinking “us vs. them” because the product can be used as a marker for being part of us and not them.
BTR: Given the rise of partisanship in mainstream news outlets, including the emergence of hyper-partisan news sites and channels, how difficult is it to comb for bias when it seems as if everything is presented with some sort of spin?
JN: I think we do tend to focus on outlets that people still have some expectations for. We’ve written a little bit about Breitbart, but going through and saying “that’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true”–I think that people who are not drinking the Breitbart Kool-Aid assume that most of Breitbart isn’t true, and they’re right to do so. People do tend to think that if you see something in the Washington Post or on NPR, then it must be true. And that’s not really the case, and it’s definitely not the case that you are getting an unbiased window on the world if you read an establishment newspaper. Newspapers have points of view. They tend to be better about hiding them than Breibart or Fox News, but the bias is there, and it’s worth pointing out, I think.
Now, that’s not to say there’s no reason to read The New York Times. We’re not a group that says you should blank out the news media. I think that you should be skeptical of the information you receive, compare what you learn to what you know form other sources, and take things with a grain of salt. What we’re trying to do is provide the salt that people need to have a more realistic and healthy understanding of the news that they consume.
BTR: Is the current corporate media news model healthy? What can people do to help foster more independent alternatives?
JN: I think it’s always been a problem that you have news media that are so based on one economic model, where just about all the news we get comes from for-profit companies that are dependent on corporate advertising for their revenue. That’s a very narrow base to put your information system on. You have things like NPR and PBS, which are supposed to be alternatives to that model, and in fact, they are very heavily dependent on corporate donations as well. So they really don’t serve as the kind of alternative they’re supposed to be. And I think we do need that alternative, news that is dependent for their revenue on the people who use them rather than people who are trying to sell things to the people who use them.
If you find media that you feel you trust, you should contribute to them. If you find an outlet that you think is you the real information that you need, that’s an outlet that deserves your support and needs your support in order to continue doing the kind of journalistic work that you need. In these times, I think we need more independent journalism than ever before. It’s a key part of democracy itself.