Mainstream Media Have Unintentional Right Wing Bias

Julie Hotard
8 min readOct 31, 2017

I have written before about mainstream media’s ingrained habit of “covering both sides”, even if one side is lies or speculation. Journalists frequently say that if both political sides are angry with them, then they must be covering events objectively. I am glad that not all journalists think this way.

Journalists who do think this way end up having an unintentional Right Wing bias. This is particularly unfortunate because many Right Wingers would like to destroy journalism and replace it entirely with Right Wing echo chambers. Mainstream media are inviting their own destruction when they allow themselves to fall unwittingly into Right Wing bias.

Many modern media outlets have given up almost entirely on journalism & changed to become entertainment outlets or propaganda outlets. Even elections are covered like entertaining horse races — not serious decision points for the public about what policies will serve the nation best. Outrageous Right Wingers’ threats, insults & conspiracy theories are more entertaining than good journalism would be. That often pushes those subjects up to the top of the list of topics to be covered.

The “Cover both sides” rule may have begun as a way of complying with the Fairness Doctrine, which is no longer in effect.

However, when that doctrine was instituted, it was a time when all sides were often telling the truth and discussing policies in good faith. Times have changed.

This “Cover both sides and both end up angry at you” rule is simple and inexpensive. The problem is that it’s not accurate. It’s amazing that some editors, journalists and TV producers consider this rule a substitute for fact checking, or for awareness or knowledge of the sociopolitical context within which reporting is done.

To get more clear about this, let’s look at a couple of examples. Let’s use reporting on Nazis and slavery in our examples, since these topics seem to be in the news a lot. They’re also areas where our nation is heading backwards socio-politically — with an apparently increasing number of people looking favorably or neutrally upon Nazis and slave owners.

The fact that we are regressing backwards as a nation, is related to the “Cover both sides and both end up angry at you” rule. Treating immoral ideas spoken by powerful people as equal to moral ideas spoken by less powerful citizens, is a practice which can unintentionally bias reporters and news consumers toward the side of the immoral idea. This is complicated by the fact that reporters and TV producers in mainstream media often think that judging morality is taking a side — something that they shouldn’t do.

The renowned cognitive linguist George Lakoff, finds morality to be very relevant to politics. He even wrote an excellent book, called Moral Politics. It’s well worth reading for those interested in the questions of morality in politics and news reporting.

There are many current examples of the “Cover both sides” rule. However, I’ll give some examples that turn back the clock to earlier times. Looking back in time may give us a more objective perspective, than analyzing the political culture that we are currently experiencing.

Suppose you are a reporter interviewing people during the 3rd Reich in Germany. You report Nazis’ statements that Jews are evil and subhuman and should be obliterated from the face of the earth. Some Nazis have a good bit of leisure time to be interviewed, and they are pleased to go on and on discussing the evilness of Jews. Nazis supply a lot of “content”, which is important to news agencies, and you are grateful. It’s a kind of content that’s in demand, because it gives many news consumers a boost in their self-esteem by causing them to feel superior.

The Jews you interview are often trying to hide from or escape from Nazis. Very few of them will take the chance of talking to a reporter, so you end up with fewer interviews on that side. Not that you report on, or even notice, the context within which you are interviewing people. Because what are you anyway? A sociologist?

The Jews you interview tell you that they are just people like anyone else, and deserve to be treated with equal justice under the law. It’s okay with you that these interviews are brief and limited in scope. There is not a high demand for this kind of “content” because it causes some news consumers to feel pained or guilty.

You write up both sides of the story, taking a neutral stance, just reporting what you were told. Lo and behold, once your story is released, both sides are angry with you. Does this mean that your reporting was objective?

Take a few minutes now to think this through before going on to the second example. What do you think the effects will be, of your style of reporting on the views of news consumers?

Okay, here’s the next example. Suppose you are a reporter interviewing people in a Southern state before the Civil War. You interview slave owners. They strenuously defend slavery because they are in favor of “the rule of law.” They say “By God, I paid for these human beings, and under the law I own them, just as surely as I own furniture or farm equipment that I paid for.” They tell you that black people are subhuman and are not smart enough to be capable of making their own decisions, so slavery is actually the ideal way for them to live.

The slave owners supply a lot of “content”, so you are grateful. Luckily for you, it’s a kind of content that’s in demand, because it causes a number of news consumers to feel pleasantly self-satisfied and superior. Slave owners have a good bit of leisure time, during which they are happy to discuss at length the shortcomings of slaves and the superiority of slave owners to slaves. Of course, you don’t notice this abundance of leisure time for slave owners, or anything else about the context in which you do your interviews. Because what are you anyway? A sociologist? No, you’re a journalist — which is apparently similar to a stenographer who interviews and records statements from two different sides.

Then you interview slaves, who tell you that they are as human as you are, and deserve to be treated as equal. They tell you that slavery should be outlawed. Interviews with slaves are brief and limited in scope, since they are forced to work almost every waking hour, and they need to get some sleep to wake up and do it all over again the next day, unless they can find a way to escape.

If slaves talk to you, they may fear being caught doing so by slave owners. “Content” from slaves tends to make some news consumers feel pained and guilty, so there’s not so big a market for it anyway. So it’s okay with you that that side is not well represented. You don’t notice or report on context, such as why interviews with slaves are brief and limited, because you aren’t a sociologist.

You write up both sides of the story, taking a neutral stance, just reporting what you were told. Lo and behold, once your story is released, both sides are angry with you. Does this mean that your reporting was objective?

Even though both sides are angry at you, one side has a powerful outrage machine, so that side complains more loudly and pushes more powerfully against you, pressuring you and other media in various ways, for more “fair” — that is, more favorable — coverage. They’re powerful enough that they’ve even gotten some media organizations to fire journalists who made a mistake or two. So you give in to that side & slant your coverage more favorably toward slave owners in the future.

Ask yourself what the effect of such coverage would be on news consumers.

Another issue here is that media want to make money. They sometimes do that by entertaining people. They can do this through “horse race” coverage, that is, by making a political race seem, and thus become, closer than it is or should be. They can also entertain by focusing a disproportionate amount of attention on an entertaining political candidate, even if he espouses policies that are destructive to the nation.

I’ll stop here soon, to allow readers to think. I am sure you can think of additional examples of your own, both in our current times and in past history. Ask yourself: What happens when those who work for newspapers or TV stations obey the rule of “Cover both sides and both sides should end up angry at me”, as their way to determine objectivity? What happens if only one side is lying?

What happens if one side is not speaking in good faith but is pushing a self-serving agenda? What if the two sides are very far from being equal in status or in power? What if only one side has a vested interest, but as a news person you just don’t notice or comment on that? What happens if your media outlet focuses on the most entertaining people or candidates, who happen to be or espouse candidates that are highly destructive toward the nation?

Our news producers, as well as our society in general, could benefit from thinking about these matters. The fate of our democracy depends on it.

The “Cover both sides as if they are equivalent horses in a horse race” rule is actually DETERMINING our news and history at this time — not just being used for reporting. It’s resulting in a Right Wing bias in mainstream media, which is then taken on by news consumers.

Getting back to recent events, see my essay linked below, about how Trump’s campaign won the 2016 election. This includes a discussion of how Bannon played mainstream media like a fiddle, to get them to treat the Clinton Cash book as objective truth. It also includes information about unintentional social media biases. As the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci notes, these are essentially strong biases toward the highest bidder for the data and algorithms that social media companies collect. That bias exists even if the highest bidders are terrorists, Nazis or foreign governments hoping to sow division and destroy our democracy.

Superior Use of Science and Technology Won the 2016 Election