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Media bias extends beyond politics

Illustration: Gerald Rich, Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Several examples of major non-political news stories recently show that collective bias by the mainstream media goes beyond politics, seeping into issues of race, climate and terrorism.

Why it matters: Collective media bias can be hard to detect and address in real time, but the consequences are significant. At best, it can dramatically skew coverage for the majority of the population; at worst, it can distort the truth by inflating or downplaying significant aspects of some news stories.

Between the lines:

  • Terrorism: A new study, detailed in The Guardian, found that terrorist attacks committed by Muslim extremists receive 357% more U.S. press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims. The findings, as the Guardian notes, are particularly disturbing given that white and right-wing terrorists carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Muslim extremists between 2008 and 2016.
  • Hurricanes: A report from the Washington Post in 2017 found that overall, during roughly the same time period from September to October 2017, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico received only a third as many mentions in text as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on the mainland.
  • Missing girls: Last year, a case of 10 missing minority girls in Washington, D.C. sparked outrage due to a lack of media coverage. As Vox wrote in explaining the controversy, "Even though children of color go missing more often than white children, they receive far less media coverage and public attention."
  • Even climate change, which is a hot digital topic, often struggles to get coverage on cable news. MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted last week that "almost without exception. every single time we've covered it's been a palpable ratings killer. so the incentives are not great."

The big picture: The financial pressures being put on newsrooms often push journalists to cover what they think will get a lot of pickup, argues Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University. And tools that help journalists discover what's trending, like CrowdTangle and Tweetdeck, could be a part of that problem.

"Journalists are increasingly using products which highlight most viral posts amongst media. There are a lot of concerns on how this pushes media coverage bias."
— Jennifer Grygiel

Little economic incentive for mainstream media networks to cover certain topics or viewpoints, due to ratings or sales pressure, exacerbates the problem.

"Most news is also shaped by profit and ratings pressures, which favor breaking news over slow-moving social or environmental problems."
— Rodney Benson, chair of NYU's Department of Media

Newsroom diversity is another contributing factor, Benson says:

  • "Journalists’ relatively privileged backgrounds, combined with conceptions of their target audiences (increasingly skewed toward high-income groups most likely to be subscribers), create unconscious biases which shape what or who they think is worth paying attention to. This means that the the interests and concerns of less privileged groups (by class, religion, region, race, gender, or sexuality) are downplayed or ignored."
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