What the Akin News Cycle Tells Us About Media Bias

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In the wake of Rep. Todd Akin’s “ill-conceived” comments about “legitimate rape,” a nagging question about the media bias and culpability in such stories has surfaced. What happens when the Fourth Estate has fumbled or screws up, as Akin’s interviewer, Charles Jaco, said about his own inability to question or challenge Akin’s statement and instead asked a question about the economy. What lessons can we learn from the Akin news cycle debacle?

[Jaco] “was too eager to go to the economy as he was running out of time,” said Las Vegas print and TV journalist Jon Ralston, who has appeared on cable news shows including CNN’s The Situation Room. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a producer talking in your ear. I hope I wouldn’t have missed that, but…. Sometimes, though, in the zeal to be fair, you can present a skewed version of the truth. There are not always two sides to a story — sometimes there is only one, sometimes there are five.”

But while it’s clear that Jaco dropped the ball on the Akin story, this is certainly not the first incident of lazy or hurried journalism in politics. Turn on almost any 24-hour cable news show, listen to NPR, read your local newspaper and you’ll see at least one example of a situation where a journalist should have asked or challenged or at the very least presented an opposing side. To compound matters, in our modern age of social media and instant updates, bad journalism is allowed to echo endlessly in a chamber of what should be truth.

In the Akin news cycle, as the Women’s Media Center points out, Jaco’s mea culpa does not extend to the rest of the news media, who did little to stop the dissemination of Akin’s harmful and factually incorrect assertions:

In the first day of stories surrounding Akin’s remarks it seems some reporters were so eager to talk about the political fallout that they never got around to even mentioning it wasn’t true. …[T]oo often the initial reporting was similar to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which only said that “journalists and bloggers” were asking which doctors Akin’s got his facts from? Rather than using their own reporting or authority to correct the inaccuracy, “Morning Edition” instead punted to the Washington Post which they said “cited a study that tens of thousands of women become pregnant through rape each year.”

One wonders if so many attacks on the so-called intellectual elitism (or liberalism) of the media — almost always code for news stories that place fact in context without moralizing or religiosity — has begun to weaken the ranks a bit. Perhaps, as the Women’s Media Center points out, the most telling part of the Akin news cycle is the reservations journalists had in reporting scientific fact. Surely, it would not be seen as biased to merely state how human conception works. Or, for that matter, the number of women who conceive after being raped. (Approximately 32,000, according to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.) Or, going all the way now, what is not rape and what is.

It seems like a problem bigger than just sloppy journalism if journalists (or their editors/producers) are questioning themselves each time they consider correcting a pundit or politicians incorrect assertion with well-documented fact (like the female reproductive system). What about all those other media outlets that reported on the Akin story who didn’t go so far as to report facts to further contextualize Akin’s comments? It looks like more than just Jaco failed to do their jobs on this one.

When news cycles like this happen — the kind that make even those telling the news look idiotic or feeble — it makes the entire Fourth Estate less credible. Indeed, according to a new Pew Center survey, the credibility ratings for all major news outlets has declined to a sobering 56%. And this matters as we enter the final leg of a busy and important election season in which not just the presidency but both houses of Congress are up for grabs.

“The media bias that I find most troubling, at least with respect to political coverage, is the meta-emphasis on whether a political statement or policy proposal is selling with the electorate — the horse race horseshit — to the point that the accuracy of the statement or credibility of the policy is incidental, if addressed at all,” said political blogger Hugh Jackson, of Las Vegas Gleaner. “In an election that is supposed to be all about the economy, the political press corps, with a handful of exceptions, either doesn’t care about economics or is just economically illiterate. A political story on the importance of the economy to the election is more likely to feature quotes from a pollster or even a political scientist than an economist. The political press is however very, very good at wondering which sliver of the electorate may be momentarily intrigued by the latest shiny object.”

What of that audience, or at least the 56% who are still finding value in the media they consume? Does any culpability rest with each of us as news consumers to expect more from those who deliver the news to us?

Looking again at that Pew Center survey, we can see that the credibility — or believability, as they measure it — of traditional news outlets is largely seen through a partisan prism:

The believability ratings for individual news organizations – like views of the news media generally – have long been divided along partisan lines. But partisan differences have grown as Republicans’ views of the credibility of news outlets have continued to erode. Today, there are only two news organizations – Fox News and local TV news – that receive positive believability ratings from at least two-thirds of Republicans. A decade ago, there were only two news organizations that did not get positive ratings from at least two-thirds of Republicans. By contrast, Democrats generally rate the believability of news organizations positively; majorities of Democrats give all the news organizations tested ratings of 3 or 4 on the 4-point scale, with the exception of Fox News.

Clearly, we as media consumers also play a role in what gets disseminated. This may be more true than ever in the age of instant sharing and “intelligent” web browsing tools. This is something Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble” in which we basically create our own biased media portals through our web search histories. For example, if you read a lot of liberal news sites and blogs on your computer, pretty soon the search engine you use will tailor the top choices when you search for things. The search engines personalize the results you get. But you may also be missing a wide array of other options, opinions, and stories. And this also means when you put “Mitt Romney” in a search engine, you will get different results than I do.

I would argue this goes even further with social media sites, as you can customize exactly who you are getting news from by deciding whom you follow. You might decide to follow NPR and not FOX News, for instance. You’ve just personalized your media experience based. And in that continuum of uninterrupted cyber space a piece of journalism — those good and bad — begin to serve as a mechanism to validate our own values, rather than as a tool of truth or objectivity. And this is not lost on those who create the news as well.

“My much bigger worry is not that they are biased but that people only watch outlets for validation, not to get informed,” Ralston said.

Perhaps the lesson is we all must be vigilant — journalists and consumers alike. The journalists must do their jobs — well and with zeal for the truth. And consumers must hold journalists accountable while also checking their own biases.