In 2019, and really for a long time now, people all over the political spectrum complain about the Main Stream Media (or MSM) and their bias. According to various individuals, the MSM is controlled by big business, the wealthy, the deep state, the Illuminati or some other bogey man. The truth is that most of the problems in the MSM are caused by a broken business model, a fractured and poorly informed audience and individuals insistence on feeding their own confirmation bias. Usually when people accuse a media org of ‘bias’ what they mean is that it cuts against what they currently believe or want to hear.
There was a time, primarily in the early to mid-twentieth century, when “the news” was considered a public service. TV networks and others considered what they did a public service and part of the price of using the public airwaves. Before that time, in the 19th century and before, media was primarily used for propaganda purposes. By the late 20th century first cable and then the internet came along and broke the public service model. Many journalists still consider what they do to be a public service, but journalism is a business and the business people who run media organizations do not and cannot afford to put a high priority on public service.
The media business is not suffering, as some partisans would have you believe because they are biased or out of touch. They are suffering because there is too much media. Anyone can jump on the internet, and with a limited amount of knowledge, a few hours to kill and a hundred bucks can create a “news site” and start competing for clicks and ad dollars. If they have a microphone they can start podcasting, if they have a camera (included with any phone or laptop) they can jump on YouTube.
The large number of outlets doesn’t only create competition for ad dollars, it also drives down the cost of ads. Because there are so many outlets competing for limited ad dollars, advertisers can get away with paying less and less for ad space.
So, people in the business of media, people who want to make money from it do what any other business does. They figure out who their audience or target audience is, and they try to give them a product that they want and that is where bias, clickbait, and ‘fake news’ come in. The media, especially the MSM, respond to what people like, click on, share and talk about. If certain types of stories do really well, you’ll get more of them. If other stories do less well, you’ll get fewer of them. And, in some cases, unscrupulous or desperate outlets will bend the truth or even chuck in out the window altogether if it gets them closer to giving the audience what they want.
It’s not, in most cases, the media’s biases that are driving the news, it’s yours. If certain international events aren’t getting much attention, it’s because the media has learned that there is no profit in covering it. This is more and more true as the money available to media declines (and it does decline, every year). Certain types of stories, including stories happening far from home and investigative journalism, are much more expensive to produce and so there has to be a much larger audience for media organizations to justify producing them.
Certain types of media are less prone to these trends than others. Public broadcasters, for example, are not as driven by profits. However, their newsrooms are still judged by audience size, web traffic and similar metrics and so they too must do their best to identify their audience and give them what they want.
As much as populists and socialists may hate it, the non-editorial reporting of the financial press tends to be pretty good at covering important stories in an accurate way. Organizations like the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist are very expensive to subscribe to. Their target audience tends to be affluent business people and investors. Many of those people make significant life decisions and financial decisions, sometimes involving millions or even billions of dollars based on the reporting of the financial press. That audience will not thank them for lying, misrepresenting events, exaggerating, ignoring significant trends and events, or toeing the party line when it cuts against reality.
So, if you want to understand media bias, don’t look to the halls of government or secret cabals of the wealthy. It is not the Illuminati or the deep state that is distorting the news, it is you and your friends and neighbors. And the problem is compounded by social media algorithms designed to give you stories that you are likely to interact with.
In short, if you want better media, make better choices. Be pickier about what you read and watch, and about what you like and share. With every read and listen and comment you are telling media companies what kind of media you want.