Today, we’re going to be talking about “fake news.” Well, kind of. More specifically, we’re going to be talking about media bias. It seems that every day there is an infinite number of new sources and headlines, and no way to keep up with what’s real and what isn’t. Especially in recent years, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to know what media you can trust. Has it always been like this? Or has it actually gotten worse? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.
Media bias in America has been around for about as long as America has. Let’s take it back to the American Revolution. Sam Adams was writing sensationalized pamphlets of early conflicts in order to garner support from the colonists. When Thomas Paine released his work “Common Sense” which greatly attributed to the colonist attitude against the Crown, it was described as “fanatical.”
Jumping ahead, a largely unacknowledged event of media bias in US History actually took place during the ratification of the constitution. The US Founders did everything they could to keep Anti-Federalist or Anti-Constitution sentiments out of newspapers. Under 16% of newspapers at the time published anything of the sort.
Moving forward a bit, the third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson famously wrote “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Kind of like the 19th-century version of saying fake news.
Taking it to the era of the civil war in the 1860s, the news media was rather outwardly biased. Most towns had newspapers that were run by a political party, being declared as a Republican or Democrat publication.
In 1895, the term “Yellow Journalism” was coined, which referred to news media that prioritized sensationalism over sense. The widespread practice was widely credited as being a factor that pushed the US and Spain to go to war in the Philippines and Cuba.
Then, of course, we can’t talk about media bias without touching on Watergate. Nixon consistently attacked the news media as biased and unrepresentative of the people. However, the Watergate scandal was arguably the beginning of a dangerous media practice that is running rampant today; the race to release a headline quickly rather than accurately.
Where does that leave us now? Well, one of the biggest shifts that have taken place is the way in which we consume media. Because so much of what we read is online, the news is designed to get clicks over anything else. So, while news sensationalism has been around forever, blatant false news has become more prevalent. Another thing is that while in the past it was journalistically acceptable to have different sources declared as being part of one political identity, that is no longer the case. That doesn’t mean that the news media doesn’t have political bias anymore, it just means that it isn’t declared. This is arguably more dangerous, as it allows people to exist in an echo chamber while also convincing themselves that they’re consuming moderate, unbiased information.
This probably has left you with a lot of the same questions I raised in the beginning. Who’s telling the truth? Can you even trust me? The answer isn’t that black and white though. In reality, no you shouldn’t trust anyone source completely, not even me. The best thing that you can do to stay informed is cross-checking. Use different sources and see what facts remain consistent. Most importantly, draw your own conclusions. It may seem exhausting to keep up with so much news, but realistically we’ve just traded one problem for another. News media is so accessible now, so much more than it’s ever been. Now it’s just up to us to filter through it and think critically.
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