The Framers of the Constitution believed that the media--primarily newspapers in their day--played a crucial role in a system of popular governance. The ratification debates were, in large part, waged in papers published and circulated by the supporters and opponents of the Constitution. The First Amendment to the Constitution itself offers special protection for the media. It declares that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of . . . the press."
The First Amendment, however, leaves unanswered several important questions about the media. For example, should the media be neutral or try to persuade the people to adopt a particular point of view? For much of our nation's history, newspapers were openly and passionately partisan. Indeed, the "papers" of the founding era were largely political tracts aimed at convincing the people to support or oppose ratification of the Constitution. In contrast, most major news organizations--newspapers, magazines, television, radio and internet broadcasters--now see their role as independent, unbiased providers of information. The media today is nonetheless often accused of bias in its reporting.
Whether the media takes a particular point of view or not when it presents "the news," it is a key mediating institution that acts as a conduit of information between the people and their government. It provides news and information about the activities of government officials and, in turn, provides politicians with an indication of what is happening on the streets and in the neighborhoods of America.
How to Read and Interpret the News
While the information provided by the media is critically important to citizens who want to be informed participants in the political process, the information provided by newspapers, magazines, radio and television and on Internet web sites should not always be taken at face value. There are several important factors to consider as you read, listen and watch the news.
Is Media Coverage Biased?
The media is often criticized because of its apparent biases and prejudices. Is the media biased? To answer this question it is first, important to keep in mind that "the media" is not controlled by one person or group of people. In fact, there are thousands of independent media outlets across the nation. To suggest that they are all biased, and especially that they are all biased in the same direction, would be unfair and inaccurate.
The question of bias, however, can still be raised about individual media outlets. As a consumer of the news, there are several ways you can decide whether a newspaper, magazine, news broadcast or news web site is biased. First, you should get your news from several different sources. By comparing what you read in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with what you see on Nightline and CNN and what you find on the Washington Times web site or WorldNetDaily.com, you can decide for yourself whether one or more of these media sources seems to be putting its own spin on the stories you read or if it is simply "reporting the facts". One thing you are likely to notice by getting your news from these and other large, national media outlets is that coverage is fairly uniform. The tendency of all reporters and news outlet editors/producers to run the same stories is sometimes called "pack journalism." Uniformity in news reporting is the result of a desire to not be "scooped" by other reporters. If one network or newspaper covers a story, others are usually quick to follow.
Other questions you should ask to determine whether a source of information is biased or not include:
- Is there an overt effort to cast an individual or group in either a positive or negative light?
- Does the story get the amount of attention you think it deserves? Is it on the front page or on page twenty-seven? Does a news anchor spend ten minutes or ten seconds on the story?
- What evidence is cited and who is quoted to support claims made in the story? Were people on both sides of the story given the opportunity to comment? Was this opportunity substantial or token?
- Is the coverage of a story substantially different, in terms of the facts presented and amount of coverage, from that offered by other media outlets?
While these questions are not always easily answered, you should think about them as you consume information provided to you by the media.
Politicians and the Press
As you read, watch and listen to the media's coverage of politicians, groups and political parties, it is important to understand the relationship between reporters and those they cover. In general, politicians want to be covered in the best possible light by the media. The media, however, generally wants to publish the most accurate and interesting information it can find about politicians. These goals are not always compatible. In fact, the conflicting goals of politicians and the media are more likely to produce and adversarial relationship between the two than a friendly alliance. This is especially the case when a politician wants to keep a scandal or negative story quiet while the media is eager to report it.
Contact the Media
Terms & Concepts
- media bias Occurs when the media (individually or collectively) reports something that is inaccurate or one-sided because of ideology, political favoritism, reliance on limited (not treating both sides equally), or other factors. Bias can show up in coverage (or lack thereof) or in the content and analysis of stories.
- mediating institution An institution which stands between and connects people with the government. Examples include the media, political parties and interest groups.
- "pack journalism" The tendency of journalists and news outlets to cover the same stories. Driven by the fear of being "scooped" by other reporters or news outlets.
Think About It
- Could the American system function without the media? Why or why not?
- What, if anything, should be changed in the way the media does its job?