News Bias: America’s Guilty Pleasure?

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There is what looks like good news and bad news in the new Pew poll on American media consumption. Sixty three percent of respondents agree with the phrase, “Major news organizations today do a good job covering all of the important news stories and subjects that matter to me.” (The good.) But 72 percent also say “most news sources today are biased in their coverage.” (The bad.)

Or is it all bad? As the poll explains, “Conservatives and Republicans are the ones most likely to see coverage as biased.” No surprise there. The surprise comes a few pages later in the report, where Pew explains that it is this same population that just can’t get enough of news with a distinctive point of view. In other words, the term “bias” might not be as negative as it seems.

The people who are more likely than others to prefer sources with no point of view include: internet users who get news online, whites, and those with higher levels of educational attainment. Those without strong partisan ties (i.e. Independents) or ideological connections (i.e. moderates) are also more likely than partisans to want their news straight.

Those who are disproportionately likely to seek out news sources that match their own views include Republicans and conservatives. Democrats, in contrast, are more likely than other groups to seek out news that either supports their own views or differs from their own views (as opposed to seeking out news coverage that has no particular point of view).  . . .

This cohort that prefers news from compatible sources is an interesting group of news consumers for several other reasons. For instance, they are significantly more likely than others to say that consuming news is entertaining and relaxing to them. They are more likely to say they would like more coverage of religious and spiritual news. And they are more likely to say most news sources are biased.

For what it’s worth, I think the word “bias” is problematic. In Fox News adverts, it is used to describe dishonest news–or news with an undeclared spin. But in polls like this one, it can also be used to mean any non-objective news, i.e. news with a declared point of view, which many people like. There is no doubt that there is an demonstrated increase in the appetite subjective news, which can be, among other things, far more efficient and entertaining in explaining what is happening than a classic news story. One subset of this point-of-view approach is what I would call honest-broker subjectivity, in which the author is allowed to rise or fall on the quality of his or her perspective. It must be said that this technique has long been at the very heart of magazine journalism, and can be seen more and more in front page stories in newspapers.

Magazines, meanwhile, are not in any way falling out of favor–even as they struggle economically. My own employer has been trumpeting this fact recently, as part of a consortium of magazine companies. They have launched an ad campaign that highlights the following facts:

–Magazine readership has risen 4.3% over the past five years (Source: MRI Fall 2009, Fall 2005 data)
–Average paid subscriptions reached nearly 300 million in 2009 (Source: MPA estimates based on ABC first half 2009 and second half 2009 data)
–Adults 18-34 are avid magazine readers. They read more issues and spend more time per issue than their over-34 counterparts (Source: MRI Fall 2009 data)
–During the 12-year life of Google, magazine readership increased 11% (Source: MRI Fall 2009 data)

Clearly many magazines don’t do “news” as we would commonly think about it, so do not take magazine success as an endorsement of “bias” or subjectivity. But the trends–which can also be seen in news audienc segregation online and on cable television–are there.