“(The media) is totally dishonest … the level of dishonesty is enormous.”
“Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth …”
“The fake news media … is the enemy of the American people!”
Chances are if you’ve watched television, gone on the internet or have simply spoken to others about the state of the world in the past five or so years, you’ve probably heard quotes very similar to these. That would be no surprise, as all three of these quotes come from the former president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
Many have come to believe that most of the mainstream media has a large amount of bias which makes its reporting untrustworthy. According to a study from late 2020 by Gallupwhich asked if Americans trust trust in the media to report the news "fully, accurately, and fairly," six in 10 Americans have “not very much” trust or “none at all.”
According to many Americans, no matter the publication, each likely has an agenda they are trying to push on their viewers.
Newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have come under intense scrutiny during the past decade, with more people than ever picking apart every article and post they make. Local and national television news has perhaps taken the brunt of criticism from all sides, with CNN, Fox News and many more being thrown under the bus regularly online.
Does this bias really exist? Should those consuming news trust what they read?
The answer, as one might expect, is that it depends.
Professor Michael Martinez, a lecturer at UT who teaches multiple classes focusing on media ethics, noted that every journalist must do their part to set aside personal biases.
“We all have a bias of some sort, by our very nature. We all have different beliefs, traditions. … We all come from different backgrounds,” Martinez said. “The challenge in journalism is doing your best to set those biases aside.”
In most schools of journalism, journalists are taught to approach every story with objectivity. Journalistic objectivity is usually defined as the ability of one to approach a story from a non-biased position. That is, approach every story with as little bias as possible, without an agenda; simply tell the facts.
Journalistic objectivity, however, is an idea that has been under attack. Not just from the public, but from the journalistic community itself.
Narcis-Florentin Neagoe, a student getting his master’s in journalism at the University of Bucharest in Romania and a reporter for DCNews, doesn’t believe in the concept of “objectivity.”
“Being ‘objective’ about something is impossible, an absolute that can't be achieved,” Neagoe said. “We can do our best to be equidistant between the two sides even when we are inclined to support one or another.”
Neagoe noted that simply entering the world of journalism forces one to broaden their ideas and accept that all political sides have good and bad qualities; no one ideology is perfect.
“When I got employed at a news site and started working as a journalist, I was forced to more clearly see the truth about both sides,” Neagoe said. “Sometimes, the party I supported was doing things wrongly, and the old class of corrupt politicians sometimes didn't get credit for things they did right.”
Martinez defines objectivity as a method — not necessarily being completely balanced, but putting ones preconceived notions aside for the sake of the story.
“Objectivity is a method, not necessarily a balance. Just because you interview someone from Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean you need to interview the Proud Boys … that’s not objectivity,” Martinez said. “It’s more about following the facts as you start discovering and let it lead you where you are going. Based on the information you find, you need to use your news judgement to report whatever that is … whatever is truly news.”
Martinez noted that there are many biased media sources out there, but they are generally easy to spot. Most mainstream, traditional media outlets, however, may have slight framing but generally stick to the facts.
“If you read coverage of the same event from multiple different sources, the framing may be a little bit different, but the information is the same,” Martinez said. “In general, the aim of most legacy, traditional news organizations is to try to keep bias out of reporting, to follow the facts and report the truth the best that they can. It’s up to the public to decide what they take from that.”
Thus, entirely avoiding biased reporting or reporting that has a specific frame or agenda may be impossible, but audiences can combat this by reading different accounts of the same story. By finding the facts in news and using one’s own judgement, a person can find the truth in the news and come to their own conclusions about it.
Though “fake news” does exist, it might be less common in traditional media than one might think. Many journalists have responded to the attacks on journalism in the past decade with a renowned resolve to put out good, reliable reporting. Instead of feeding the “fake news” machine, kill it with kindness; or, that is, good reporting.
“In response to the distrust of the media, journalists need to mount a campaign of journalistic literacy; that is, the difference between talking heads on CNN or Fox News and fact-based journalism. Many don’t understand the difference between opinion-based commentary and a news program,” Martinez said.
Doing your own fact checking and research is key to making sure you are fully informed about a story. Don’t simply believe everything you hear.
“The public must find the source of the information being given to them instead of taking everything they hear as gospel,” Martinez said. “Some sources are legitimate, and some aren’t. Knowing the difference is key to understand what is real news and what isn’t.”