The American press is often described as the fourth estate, a collection of watchdogs that make sure government stays in check. But what happens when the media fails — or willfully chooses not to report — on a huge story? It can create distrust between citizens and those they elect to represent them. In the U.S., this isn’t just an abstract concern.
Media outlets have demonstrated bias in favor of some political agendas over others. They’ve also displayed a willingness to ignore critical stories if they run counter to their agenda or if they feel it will hurt them financially or personally. The result is a less informed public that is more likely to distrust their government and elected officials than trust them with their well-being.
Past political biases in U.S. media
The American media has a long history of bias, dating back to its roots as a medium of entertainment and propaganda during the Revolutionary War. Journalists often used their platforms to promote American causes, including the war itself.
With the advent of the Civil War and Reconstruction, journalists introduced new methods of journalism, including political cartoons and heavily reported news stories. To rally support for the war effort, newspapers frequently accused Lincoln of being too lenient toward the South.
In the early 20th century, journalists collaborated with industrial moguls to promote patriotism and build support for World War I. Newspapers were owned by munitions companies, and many journalists demonstrated pro-war bias by minimizing the dangers of the conflict.
Recent political biases in U.S. media
Some of the most controversial examples of media bias in recent years include the coverage of the 2016 presidential election. Numerous studies have found that the media is far more likely to report on negative news about Republicans than Democrats while downplaying or ignoring negative stories about Democrats.
Journalists have also often featured a handful of (often anonymous) anti-Trump pundits — even when the vast majority of pundits say they don’t support his candidacy.
To investigate this, researchers at the University of Delaware analyzed more than 1,300 articles written about the presidential election between October 1, 2015, and August 31, 2017, using a computer algorithm that searched for keywords and phrases associated with Trump and Clinton. They found that the articles overwhelmingly favored Clinton, with Trump receiving only 2 percent of positive coverage.
Bias against conservatives
Newspapers have also exhibited a pro-Democratic bias when covering issues like gay rights, guns, and illegal immigration. A 2016 study found that conservative politicians and causes were reported less positively than liberal ones in 15 out of 16 media categories, including tone, use of quotes, and selection of content.
Bias against liberals
Many critics say that the American media is too focused on issues like sex and violence, which interest only a small segment of the population. But a 2017 study found that the media is far too willing to promote stories that vilify conservatives and Republicans, while rarely criticizing Democrats or the mainstream media.
In the early days of the Iraq War, the American media was largely silent about the lack of evidence to support the war’s existence. After the invasion turned into a disaster, the Bush administration and the American media were quick to pin the blame on the “willful blindness” of the press.
But other countries were reporting on the lack of evidence, as well as the questionable motives of the U.S. government. And the American public was growing increasingly skeptical, with a majority of people questioning the invasion six months before the invasion itself.
In other words, the media’s failure to question the invasion’s validity was not a failure to report, but rather a failure to report on the same story promptly.