Some scholars and journalists argue American journalism in the 1990s suffers from a credibility crisis.(1) Public perceptions of bias in the news media were detected as early as the 1960s.(2) However, trend data suggest the American public views the media as increasingly less trustworthy, paralleling - possibly surpassing - a downward slide in trust for other American institutions.(3)
This study examines perceptions about bias in the news media, specifically in the use of news sources by public affairs journalists. It proposes a link between the naivete of news consumers with respect to source bias and their belief that media are biased in their news coverage.
Bias and the news media
Bias, although viewed as an important dimension of source credibility, is understudied.(4) Credibility research about news media more often explores the importance of expertise as an attribute of news sources or a newspaper, or comparatively between newspaper and electronic news sources.(5)
Carl Hovland and Walter Weiss(6) conceptualized expertise and trustworthiness as the two dominant dimensions of source credibility at the inception of social science inquiry into this topic. Even trustworthiness, however, is conceptually problematic with respect to judgments about the news media. One might expect trust in the news media to be a function to some extent of the degree to which the media are perceived to be objective or biased. Therefore, this study is concerned with news consumers' perceptions of bias on the part of news sources.
Some government officials and political pundits have criticized what they perceive to be a systematic ideological bias in the news media. Although empirical evidence suggests that the liberal bias charge against the media is largely unfounded,(7) some scholars argue that at certain times the American press has been more liberal or conservative, reflecting the climate of the country at the time.(8)
Psychological research shows partisan individuals from both sides of a controversial issue are likely to perceive the same media coverage as biased in opposite directions.(9) Albert Gunther and Dominic Lasorsa(10) found that greater importance individuals placed on an issue led to their increasing trust of newspaper coverage on that issue.
It would be, of course, self-serving on the part of journalists to claim that news consumer partisanship is the sole reason for accusations of media bias. As Gaye Tuchman argues, journalists provide a constructed reality that legitimizes the status quo and reflects the social reality of the newsroom.(11) Journalists' perceptions and presentation of social reality may differ markedly from their audiences.
W. Lance Bennett(12) maintains news media present biased information by focusing on trivial aspects of important news events, like personality flaws and behavioral gaffes; primarily cover events, leaving no professional convention for addressing many of the most serious problems confronting contemporary societies, like hunger, racism, resource waste and depletion; fragment the news, which distorts larger issues; and rely on too many of the same types of sources - authoritative officials who offer views that normalize the news for members of an average public.
Most research on news and public affairs information bias centers on the use of selected, elite sources, those who are easy to identify and access, often governmental officials.(13)
Possible relation of news source bias perceptions and media bias perceptions
Accusations of systematic bias are frustrating and painful for journalists. Reporters are trained to operate under a professional code of values and ethics, where fairness and balance reign supreme.(14) All the while, audiences are showing increasing signs of distrust. Some of that distrust may be due to extreme partisan positions on the part of some consumers. This, however, is hardly likely to explain a more widespread questioning of media objectivity. …