Bias, It’s Not Political.

22 03 2008

Many people believe that the only kind of bias in the news is that of conservative verse liberal media. I disagree. All newscasters of political ideas and it is hard for them to be completely neutral, but that isn’t a problem in my mind, it is human nature to have opinions. My problem is in how and what the news covers that provides information bias.

There are four different kinds of information bias: personalization, dramatization, fragmentation, and authority-disorder bias. Each is its own specific bias, but all are interconnected with the others making the news a faulty system, and disconnecting their audience from the larger picture of our complex world.

Personalization is the most harmful of the biases. A news organization will make a decision to cover the person rather than the real story that they are a part of. This coverage eclipses the context of a multifaceted issue in favor of “human interest stories.” These stories tug on a person’s pathos rather than giving them a chance to think logically about issues.

Personalization can make politics something that used to be about issue–broad social and economic issue–an image game. Instead of examining a political players stance or voting record, reporters will look at if they seemed angry, bypassing why they could have been angry. Personalization helps fuel the other information biases by bringing them down on an emotional level, leaving intellectual facilities dormant when the news comes on.

This is not saying that an emotional plea would be a bad thing every so often, but because of the format and news story selection, emotions are all that dictate the news. This is very true with our second information bias, dramatization. Dramatization is the soap opera view of the news, believing that crisis over continuity is better than issues-driven reporting. Dramatization of the news also goes hand in hand with personalization in the fact that is a cheap emotional device.

This is where the crisis cycle comes in. The crisis cycle is the way in which reporters cover a story that happens over a certain period of time. This cycle has a literary drive of plot, characters, climax and resolution. Yet it is the resolution that they tend to gloss over, with the story never really resolved, but enough to move on to the next story. Dramatization makes the news into short movie scenes, trivialize sense to the issues. They also make each following story more dramatic and more attention grabbing. If there isn’t enough drama, it seems that there isn’t worthy news. The reality of dramatized news is that it focuses heavily on visuals, personal narrative and crisis diminishing the real story, making issues less abstract and viewers more entertained.

Fragmentation is defined as a story completely isolated from any other story. A specific story may have a larger context, but they frame only the characters or actors within a situation, taking a piece of the puzzle, highlighting it and then leaving the audience without understanding of the full and complete picture. Whether it is a welfare story or issues with foreign policy, only a personalized or dramatized character piece will be brought up, excluding hard analysis of the circumstances leading to the story. One can look at a newscast as a fragmented piece: one story after another, unconnected with only drama and personal narratives driving each story, the audience forgetting each story after commercial breaks and abrupt segways from one story to another.

Fragmentation will take a story, cover a piece of it, and may not get the story through the entire cycle making the impression that the outcome is unimportant. This information bias makes the news sketchy and inconsistent. If a journalist only focuses on a snippet of daily news and leaves out the larger context the political actors within the story can use this form for promoting propaganda and go unchecked with inconsistencies in their own press releases, behavior and speeches. Personalization and dramatization give the news the feel of a novel or soap opera, fragmentation leaves it unfinished or forgettable.

The fourth information bias is authority-disorder bias. This type of bias paints the leaders and politicians within a situation as incompetent or questions their ability to restore order in a crisis or scandal. Of course, if the news paints politicians as unable to restore order, this heightens the dramatization. Then the news focuses on the personality of the politician being examined rather than the issue at hand. A consequence of this is the need for analysis on political figures rather than the situations that they are involved in. We want to see why President Bush did what he did after Hurricane Katrina rather than putting forth solutions and ideas for people to help.

With all of the information bias, it isn’t hard to see why many American’s have an inability to grasp or understand complex world issues. Though it may not be completely news organizations fault, they do have a part to play in how and what information their audiences receive. Personalization, dramatization, fragmentation and authority-disorder bias lead the audience away from larger complex issues and into trivial emotional stories. These information biases, of course, leave the news to be faulty and disconnected from more important and pertinent information.

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4 responses

5 04 2008
mdking

Thought provoking piece. Fundamentally, objectivity is impossible. Fairness is.

14 04 2008
Gene'O

Yay! very good post. I think the simple ideological bias is the least troublesome, unless it gets to the Limbaugh/Fox News level of bias. Liberal/conservative bias tends to either be pretty easy to spot and control for if it’s really there. More often, that sort of bias is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve seen some pretty good studies which show that often, liberals see conservative bias, conservatives see liberal bias, and uncommitted people see fairness in the same news stories. I think that’s very interesting.

Those other problems you mention are way more important, IMO, because what they add up to is a lack of context. Without context, it’s easy to trivialize important issues and make trivial issues all-consuming.

Are you familiar with the Work of Lance Bennett, Victoria? I have a book of his that talks about all of this stuff and more, using media coverage of election campaigns as examples. His first chapter touches all these types of bias, and his conclusions are about the same as yours, though your examples are a bit more relevant.

14 04 2008
Victoria

Yeah, Lance Bennett’s “News: The Politics of Illusion” was my jumping off point.
I needed to synthesis some of the information for a class, and I thought it was good enough, so I posted it. Not many people are familiar with his work outside political science or media studies. That is why I believed it would be good for people to read. It is important stuff.

V

15 04 2008
Gene'O

Yeah. That’s the book I was thinking of. This is really important info. I tend to get bogged down analyzing issues and forget how few people know this stuff.

To me, the narrative structure is the most important bit. The more I learn about communication, the more I’m convinced that pretty much everything we do is determined in one way or another by stories we tell one another. Stories are one of the few characteristics of life beyond the basic biological needs that seem to be common to humans in all times and places. Maybe a real anthropologist would correct me on that, but I’ve never heard of a culture that didn’t have stories.
:)

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