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American Journalism: Still Fair After All These Years

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Jul 31, 2017 | #1
Since the formation of the United States republic, the media has held an important place in American democracy. Journalists, in their role as watchdogs on government are crucial members of the fourth estate, ensuring democratic survival and renewal. Never without critics, journalists, their editors, and the entire print and broadcast media, have been subjected to sustained critics questioning their objectivity. Specially, can they report the news fairly? Or, are they as some might suggest, crossing the line from reporting the news to creating the news?

This paper will examine the question of fairness in the reporting of print and broadcast media. Four factors that are linked with unfair news coverage will be examined in turn. The four factors are: wayward reporters who fabricate stories out of whole cloth, one of whom was exposed in spectacular fashion in the early 2000s; the liberal media bias; the rise of partisan cable news; and, the influence of news owners on their reporter's ability to report the news. The paper will argue that while it may seem as if journalism has lost its way, American journalism continues to be fair, reporting rather than creating the news.

Journalistic Fraud: Making the Case Against Fairness Unfairly

JournalismOne of the strongest indictments of fair reporting is the failure of journalists to practice the ethics of their own profession. Journalists do not research, write and select stories in a vacuum so while their individual conduct is important, it should be seen in the broader context of making the news. According to Altmeppen, Arnold and Kossler "Journalism is a social institution, so the news coverage is not the work of individual journalists, it depends on the organizational settings in the newsroom" in addition to editors, network producers and the like (330). Thus even when a journalist inadvertently files a well-researched story with inscrutable sources, it can still be slanted or not entirely truthful, but that could be the result of the overall organization and presentation of the news that is highly influenced by the editors or producers and the structure of the newsroom.

When critics point to journalistic fraud as an example of why the news is no longer fairly reported, then, they are more interested in looking to the sensational although remarkably rare instances of wholesale fraud. One of the earliest example in recent past was in 1981 when the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post, Janet Cooke. She was awarded the Pulitzer, the highest prize in journalism, for her gripping story of an 8-year old child addicted to heroin. The story was a complete fabrication. More recently critics point to the New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. Blair resigned May 1, 2003 resigned after reports surfaced of his misconduct. The Times in an article May 11, 2003 entitled "Correcting the Record" wrote that Blair's "widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper" (Barry et al., n.p.). Blair not only had a history of lying while at the Times, he also lied about interviewing politicians while working at the Guardian. Blair failed to respond to advice, particularly that of metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman who emailed all of his staff writers that accuracy was all they as reporters had.

Fortunately, Cooke and Blair are not the journalistic norm; rather, they are outliers. Most journalists ascribe to the notion that their work is objective, an idea that dates back the 1920s and the end of the First World War. Added to that are the words that make objectivity in journalism into action: fairness, balance, impartiality and verified facts - these are the words that make up the daily work of most journalists in America today. While the goal is neutrality, to prevent the news in a detached way that is not influenced by the reporter's opinion, or anyone else's - just the facts (with some analysis) - the degree to which one can do that is debatable, the goal remains: that journalists should not be swayed by entrenched power, be that political or economic, nor advertisers nor fraud. Fortunately, most still hold to those lofty ideals.

The Liberal Media Bias? Not Entirely

The second factor that contributes to the idea that the news is not reported fairly is the constant public refrain that there is a "liberal media bias." While the charge takes on many forms, one understanding is that the news organizations, and as mentioned above the news room editors, producers, personnel, goals of the news organization - each of these aspects of news production are controlled by people who have a political ideology that is aligned with liberal rather than conservative or other kind of political ideology. This is a serious charge because by definition, the news cannot be reported fairly if this is the case. Reporters are "expected to offer a wide range of subjects, issues, and opinions" (Altmeppen, Arnold and Kossler 337). Understanding and communicating a variety of opinions cannot happen if the slant is to present a liberal point of view. As damaging as this charge is, a look at those making the charges and the reality of print and broadcast newsmakers takes away a lot of the potential damage.

Most of the people engaging in the charge of a liberal media are conservative politicians. Thus, it often becomes the case where when a politician loses ground in the polls, biased media coverage is the culprit: for all parties, not just Republicans. However, in the last presidential election campaign, it would appear that the Republican candidates found biased news everywhere, even when the "facts" were against them. David Carr points out that the PEW Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan reputable survey and research center showed that since 2010, only 33 percent of Americans get their news from the main broadcast and print media - the outlets that conservatives accuse of liberal bias (Carr n.p.). Network news still has considerable nightly viewers, but more people are turning to social media. It is hard to claim therefore that with all of the news on the Internet, that they are all liberals.

Moreover, the collapse in newspapers because of financial issues, many going into bankruptcy and the rise in social media, mean that there are far fewer newspapers, for example, competing for a larger viewing audience. It so happens, Carr notes, that the biggest newspaper in American according to circulation is no longer the accused liberal newspaper like the New York Times. Instead, the paper on top is the Wall Street Journal. For broadcast media it would be same. The most popular radio broadcasters are conservative too. Thus, as Carr notes "Many Republicans see bias lurking in every live shot, but the growing hegemony of conservative voices makes manufacturing a partisan conspiracy a practical impossibility" (n.p.). There is little doubt that the very process of selecting which stories to write on is some sort of bias, but the notion of a liberal media bias appears to be a political not a journalistic problem.

Partisan Cable News: Rejecting Fairness Out of the Gate

Many would argue that the real threat to the news is not liberal bias, but "independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs" (Downie and Schudson n.p.). Importantly, journalists serve a watchdog function on government: they tell the people the stories but also what lies behind them so that the government's business is transparent - as is the journalist's. The rise of cable news networks like MSNBC, CNN and the leader FOX, meant that there would be a different kind of reporting, one that is not necessarily based on facts, or the gathering of facts, but commentary. However, one criticism of cable news is that "there is a need not just for information, but for news judgment oriented to a public agenda and a general audience" (Downie and Schudson n.p.). Cable news does not seem to fit this requirement.

Most of the hard news is done by the newspapers not broadcast news or the new cable news shows. Despite that fact, many people will state emphatically that they trust cable news networks to give them the news, including Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report fake news shows. The most trusted cable network is the least trusted too according to a Pew Center Poll: 41 percent of people polled said they trusted Fox News, while 46 percent said they did not. The poll also shows that when asked what news organizations they are most familiar, only 5 percent said an actual national newspaper: the number one answer for 63 percent was a cable news outlet. And, 69 percent of all Americans when asked in 2004 said that they saw bias in most news they saw; only 7 percent did not. One problem with this statistic is that according to many media watchers, cable news enthusiasts are becoming more distrustful of the news even though they are not watching the news.

What cable news offers is commentary. They work on bringing up emotions in order to keep people watching. As David Frum, a conservative commentator wrote: "Proving the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel)" (quoted in Deggans n.p.). This is a concern not just about Fox, but all of the cable channels that are based in partisanship, or a particular political ideology. Yet most scholarship on media bias finds little evidence of it. Therefore watching cable news networks that support or are consistent with the watchers own ideology serves to deepen their belief that there is a media bias. Studies also show that people who distrust the mainstream media will look to alternative sources, not cable news for their coverage.

Fox news is the primary source of political information for its watchers, which is a problem for fairness in reporting. Many of Fox watchers, because they are not watching hard news, actually get their facts wrong, especially during the Iraq war. Thus it would appear that it is the discourse of bias found on cable news that leads Americans to believe that the news they are watching is not fair, rather than the news reporting itself. This does not mean that there is not media bias: selectively keeping out some information, the choice of terms, concepts and words, and how they source can all bias news content.

News Owner Influence on the News?

Along with the belief that the media is bias is the view that the owners of news outlets can control the news too. Williams points out that while the news business is run like it is not a business, because the goal is give out the news in an unbiased way, they are companies that have economic and business goals. When reporters are putting together stories, they have a number of influences, and one of them is the organization itself. Studies of news organizations show that the managers that make editorial decisions will also have to report to someone who is responsible for the organization's economic decisions. However, there is growing evidence that "the rise of conglomerate interests in the newsroom put profits ahead of professional reporting" (Williams 455).

The business connections have lead to strong claims that the profit motives, along with the pragmatic decisions to sell to advertiser's customers, not to inform the public, along with being rule by the owner's stock prices. Recent mogul mergers whereby the number of independent news outlets has decreased and a few media moguls own most of the news outlets of all kinds (from trash journalist rags to national newspapers), has led to charges that diverse news viewpoints are now lacking, along with partisan cable news is also a result. Thus, like bad reporters, there is some influence on reporting, but not enough to conclude that owners influence the news.


This paper has argued that print and broadcast news continues to report the news fairly and thus does not cross the line from news reporting to news creating. This does not mean that it never happens; the paper showed that in four main areas - fraudulent journalism, liberal bias, rise of cable news, and owner influence - that examples serve more as outliers or they distort the impact of the influence. Thus there are some horridly bad reporters, a degree of bias in all reports but not a measureable liberal bias, the rise of cable has influenced how people view the news particularly the influence of partisan blinders, and owner influence is there but not in amounts that make it more than an outlier. There are and always will be concerns and criticisms on how the news is reported. Given its importance as a watchdog on government, that is how it should be.


Altmeppen, Klaus-Dieter, Klaus Arnold, and Tanja Kossler. "Are the Media Capable of Fair Reporting? Remarks on the Principle of Fairness in Professional Journalism." In Justice and Conflicts: Theoretical and Empirical Contributions, eds. E. Kals and J. Maes, pp. 329-344. New York: Springer. Print.

Barry, Dan, David Barstow, Johnathan D. Glater, Adam Liptak, and Jacques Steinberg."Correcting the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception." The New York Times.

Carr, David. "Tired Cries of Bias Don't Help Romney." New York Times.

Coe, Kevin, David Tewksbury, Bradley J. Bond, Kristin L. Drogos, Robert W. Porter, Ashley Yahn and Yuanyuan Zhang. "Hostile News: Partisan Use and Perceptions of Cable News Programming." Journal of Communication 58: 201-219. Print.

Deggans, Eric. "Dipping Trust Ratings for TV News Reveal How Cable TV Poisons Our View of All News Media." Tampa Bay Times. Web.

Downie, Leonard Jr., and Michael Schudson. "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Columbia Journalism Review. Web.

Essay Coupons. Writing a Professional Press Release. Web.

Morris, Jonathan S. "Slanted Objectivity? Perceptions of Bias, Cable News Exposure and Political Attitudes." Social Science Quarterly 88.3: 707-728. Print.

Williams, Dmitri. "Synergy Bias: Conglomerates and Promotion in the News." Broadcasting and Electronic Media: 453-472. Print.

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