Bias Isn’t Always Negative Coverage

bias

Here’s a screen shot from CNN’s website a few moments ago.  Bernie Sanders won the Michigan primary last night, even though average polls had Hillary Clinton up by as many as 20 points.

This is not political commentary  (the world has plenty of that already) but as someone who analyzes media and media coverage this fascinates me.   Even though Bernie Sanders won the primary, his name is not even mentioned in the above screen grab. (Except for the actual results, in the chart on the right.)

It’s not “Bernie’s Victory” – but it’s “Clinton’s Suprise Loss”.  The photo is Hillary.  The headline is Hillary.

I’m sharing this because we hear so much about “media bias”.  We hear people complain that FOX leans to the right and MSNBC leans to the left.  Whatever.  (I tend to think you can get your news from ANYWHERE, as long as you know and recognize your sources. But I digress.)

Typically – when my students think of media bias – they think of commentators who vocally root for one candidate over another.

I’m sharing this example to demonstrate that bias can also be observed in the silence.  In what they DON’T say.  What or whom they do NOT focus on.

News is created, sifted, edited and presented by human beings.  Keeping it objective is a nearly impossible task, and (frankly) bad for business.  Bias doesn’t necessarily mean negative coverage.  It can also mean silence.

We need to help our students continuously ask themselves “What is being left out?

 

(If you are interested in media literacy, please check out my book on either Amazon or Barnes & Noblethanks!)

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Don’t censor. Be media literate.

I’ve been grading final projects for a couple of days now.  They’re decent.  Some of them are excellent.  But many have something in common that fascinates me:  many suggest outlawing various forms of communication.

This isn’t a media law course so (professionally) I can’t throw a tantrum that they’re not familiar with the First Amendment.

But personally, I can totally throw a tantrum.

Case in point:

“Cyberbullying hurts feelings and can be offensive. Our government should do what it can to make it illegal.”

“Tobacco advertising is miselading and since tobacco is bad for our health, advertising for it should be banned.”

“Photoshopped images of models make girls feel insecure about themselves so photoshopping images should be illegal.”

Where should we start?

“Cyberbullying hurts feelings and can be offensive. Our government should do what it can to make it illegal.”

Yes, cyberbullying hurts feelings and can be offensive. So can family dinners.  How does one define “offensive”?  And who would make that distinction? Not to mention the fact that the sheer volume of online material produced daily makes enforcing such a law impossible, especially since much of online material originates from outside of US jurisdiction anyway.

“Tobacco advertising is miselading and since tobacco is bad for our health, advertising for it should be banned.”

Yes, smoking is gross.  But it’s also a legal activity, if one is over 18.  So as long as the activity is legal, advertising that activity is also legal.

But I struggle with the student’s assertation that it should be banned because it is “bad for our health”.  In that case, ads for fast food should be banned.  Ads for soda and candy shoud be banned.  Heck, let’s ban ads for chairs since they promote a sedentary lifestyle. Let’s ban “The Bachelor” because it’s bad for my blood pressure.  Let’s ban annoying, anxiety-inducing leaf blowers because the sound is equivalent to hyenas being dragged across a cheese grater.

Where do we draw the line?  We can’t.

“Photoshopped images of models make girls feel insecure about themselves so photoshopping images should be illegal.”

There are a thousand things that make girls feel insecure about themselves. The media definitely play a part, don’t get me wrong – but eating disorders existed way before Vogue magazine.  And couldn’t someone using Photoshop claim their product is art?  Of course they could.

I suggest an alternative to all this law-passing.  Media literacy.  (I know, you’re shocked)

Let’s ask questions instead.

What techniques are used in tobacco ads to make smoking look appealing? Who is their target market for each ad?  What does the content of the ad portray, what is being promised?  Where was the ad found, and why? What is the intent of the ad?  What do the people look like in the ad, and what are they doing?  How is that different from how you’ve witnessed smoking in real life? etc.

Why do you think images are photoshopped?  What are the advertisers trying to do by using that technique?  What is portrayed, and why?  What values do the images represent?  Does anyone look like that in real life?  Why or why not?  What lifestyle is being portrayed?  Do you think people would buy lots of products if we were actually content with our physical selves? etc.

What are some coping mechanisms for negative online experiences?  In what platforms can users be blocked or reported?  What are some techniques for reminding us that our personal value has nothing to do with our online activity? Are there adults we/you can talk to about this experience?  Are there positive ways we can use the internet for good?  What are those ways?

Of course, I always think media literacy is the answer to every problem (don’t even get me started on this election) but for these students, I hope that suggesting a law isn’t their automatic knee-jerk reaction for anything they find undesirable.

(Wanna buy my book?)