A Critical Thinker's Guide to Media Bias
By Larry Atkins
Prometheus. 280 pp. $24
Reviewed by Stasia DeMarco
News - or what calls itself news - is everywhere. It's in an app on your phone or in your social-media feeds or (gasp) printed on pulp. It is difficult to decide what you need to know and what you can bookmark for later. Regardless of where you get your news, to be informed you need to decide whether you prefer balance or what's known as "advocacy journalism."
In Skewed, Larry Atkins, a longtime adjunct professor of journalism at Temple University, Arcadia University, and Montgomery County Community College, lays out the difference between "clear and balanced" news and advocacy journalism. He highlights the urgency for media consumers to recognize this difference.
This book is timely, given the recent fierce debate over "fake news" vs. reputable journalism. Atkins' concern is that advocacy journalism - he defines it as "a type of reporting in which the reporter gives an opinion or point of view and uses stories to advance an agenda," the key word here being agenda - is tearing America apart.
Generally, a conservative will watch Fox News and a liberal will watch MSNBC. As long as viewers recognize that the news they are consuming is a product geared to their viewpoint, the harm is minimal. The danger occurs when people do not push themselves to go deeper and read viewpoints that oppose their own.
One needs only to look at political reporting to see advocacy journalism in action. Pundits use sound bites and conspiracy theories to disparage their opponents. The more the audience reacts enthusiastically, the better the ratings. Corporate media giants rely on advertising to make the news profitable, so a structural pressure urges producers and reporters to make their work popular. Slippery, slippery is the slope.
Atkins stresses that to be truly critical and informed consumers of journalism, people should stop and question what they read, see, or hear. For example, if a reporter or anchor's statements appear to favor the term Obamacare instead of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), consumers should stop and question how they view health care. This preference, as subtle as it may be, may indicate a bias, because if you don't like the new health-care system, you are more likely to call it Obamacare than the ACA.
For news junkies who want to improve their ability to understand and assess accuracy in reporting, there are a couple of options. Atkins suggests that your efforts can be as simple as entering search terms into Google or doing a bit more work by heading to FactCheck.org. He wants readers and viewers to see whether their news is being presented from all sides - whether it is truly "balanced."
Of course, finding these things out (as no one is doing it for us) requires more effort than most news consumers have the time or patience to commit. Atkins is adamant, however, that in this current news climate, people must be wary of what only appears to be news.
Advocacy journalism is far from all bad - it can also involve valuable investigative reporting. As a great example, Atkins refers to Silent Spring, written in 1962 by Rachel Carson to highlight the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment. When journalists advocate to expose corruption or harm in a factual way, we the people are much better for it. The problem lies in the explosion of false news stories that are swaying public opinion by advocating not fact so much as a partisan (often vitriolically partisan) viewpoint.
Atkins advises all consumers to approach their social-media feeds with open minds and a critical understanding that most of what they see on Facebook, Twitter, and other internet opinion sites has an agenda not necessarily based on facts at all. A lot of writers are pumping out a lot of opinions and trying to craft them so they go viral, creating an unvetted media universe that Atkins sees as an enormous problem.
Stasia DeMarco is a freelance journalist and culture critic.