The American media landscape is notoriously polarized. The country’s two major television networks, three leading newspapers and dozens of niche publications all have staunchly held editorial positions on hot topics such as guns, immigration, race relations and the role of the press.
While this polarization is exacerbated by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it’s not something new. Since the earliest days of journalism in the United States, mainstream media outlets have disagreed vehemently over issues such as slavery, states’ rights and war with Mexico.
Today these disagreements often boil down to whether or not a given issue will harm or help the public good. As a result of this fierce competition for audience attention and advertising dollars, many mainstream media outlets pursue partisan agendas to gain an edge over their rivals. Some examples:
Certain aspects of the gun debate have devolved into an apocalyptic showdown between libertarianism and the federal government. At one end of the spectrum are pro-gun advocates, who argue that stricter gun laws will not significantly reduce crime but will instead increase the risk of incidents resulting in death.
At the other end of the spectrum are pro-gun control advocates, who argue that tighter laws are necessary to prevent gun violence. But how serious is the gun debate? One way to measure this is to examine how many times different topics are mentioned in the media. Take the debate over guns in general. If a leading newspaper wrote an article solely on the topic, that article would be counted as a mention of guns.
However, if that same newspaper also wrote about a related topic like gun control or concealed carry laws, those topics would be counted as well. The same is true for all other topics. For example, the debate over immigration is not one thing, but rather a wide range of topics that can be discussed.
When discussing immigration, a major point of contention is whether or not immigrants are a net benefit or burden to the United States. To answer this question, you would need to look at trends over time as well as factors such as income, education and employment status.
Many media outlets devote a significant amount of time talking about their stance on this issue. For example, in February 2018 the Washington Post published an article titled “The immigration debate can’t be reduced to the wall or no wall.”
This article, while discussing a different topic entirely, mentions “immigration” seven times. Likewise, Fox News published a piece in December of 2017 titled “Will We Ever Get an End to the Immigration Debate?” This article does not mention “immigration” at all.
Race and ethnicity
The debate over race and ethnicity in the United States is a complicated one. Many people cling to the belief that certain races are inherently more intelligent, honest and hardworking than others. Therefore, they hold, it is unfair to give certain groups of people preferential treatment. At the same time, many people believe that certain races—specifically African Americans—have been historically discriminated against and need greater support.
It’s important to remember that the debate over race and ethnicity is complicated by the fact that race is a social construct. This means that the very concepts of “race” and “ethnicity” are inaccurate. Therefore, when discussing these topics in the media, it’s important to keep these social constructions in mind.
War and peace
The media’s treatment of war and peace is also a prime example of polarization. At one end of the spectrum are media outlets that view war as an inevitable part of human history. Therefore, when a war breaks out, the media will cover it extensively until it concludes.
On the other end of the spectrum are media outlets that believe that war should be avoided at all costs. The media covers wars extensively too, but some media outlets are much more likely to portray a war as a “good thing” than others. A good example of this is how the press covered the Iraq War. While Fox News was the only major outlet to consistently depict the war as a mistake, that war was covered extensively in all other outlets.
The supremacy of expertise
The media’s treatment of experts is another area where there is plenty of room for consensus. Primarily, the media seeks out experts who can shed light on complicated topics such as climate change and immigration. However, the media is also prone to accepting the opinions of experts who have a vested interest in holding certain opinions.
For example, when it comes to immigration, Fox News has consistently portrayed undocumented immigrants as “criminals” who invade the US and “take jobs from Americans.” The New York Times, on the other hand, has portrayed undocumented immigrants as “dreamers” who “deserve a path to citizenship.”
The media’s role in democracy
The media’s role in democracy is also important, but it’s also an area that can be addressed through social media platforms. Therefore, for this section, we will focus on the “traditional” media. The traditional media’s role in democracy is to inform the public, report the facts and provide a neutral forum for the discussion of issues. The traditional media also has a responsibility to hold the government accountable by investigating their actions and reporting their missteps.