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Tag: social media

Is the Liberal media bias a myth created by the conservative media?

Slight change to my normal blog topics today. This is an essay I wrote in 2005 while studying American politics. I thought of it the other day when discussing the recent events in America. Reading through the essay I was amazed at how much of it was still relevant to the world today; and thought it was worth sharing for those with an interest in such things. The one obvious change I spotted when rereading my essay is the changing and evolving role Social Media has had in the world of news coverage, and political (or ideological) bias; and impact this has had on the so called ‘informed democracy’.

(When reading, please remember I was much younger when I wrote this, I’ve resisted the urge to tamper with it, and instead shared it as I wrote it over 15 years ago – the only thing I’ve added is the pictures!)

“Independent, aggressive and critical media are essential to an informed democracy.”

A picture of The New York Times

Today the debate over bias in the media is a hot topic, with many surveys and poll’s being carried out to establish if there is a bias in the media, and if so what this bias is. The definition of bias “is a prejudice in a general or specific sense, usually in the sense for having a predilection to one particular point of view or ideology”. Many websites have been founded by different organisations to ‘watchdog’ the media for any signs of bias, one way or another. One of the main topics of this debate on the nature of bias in the media is whether the media is more biased towards liberals than conservatives. Over the last thirty years the growth of the internet and cable television not only on a national but a global scale has led to an eruption of media networks. Newspapers are distributed across the world, cable news channels are available in the majority of countries and the internet can be used to keep track of the news at a click of the button. These media outlets have led to a change in how the news is delivered.

While accusations of bias in the media may have grown over the last fifteen years, in fact bias has always been present in the media. Newspapers in the late 1700s and early 1800s reflected the views of one of the political parties. James Fallow noted that “The Philadelphia Aurora was the voice of Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans (forbears of today’s Democrats). The Gazette of The United States was a steadfast supporter of Alexander Hamilton- Jefferson’s greatest rival- and his federalist party.” But this partisanship meant that the newspapers circulation was limited to those of its political affiliation. Thus by the 1800s newspapers began to realise that by becoming more bi-partisan they could increase their circulation and their popularity by having politicians court them for favour. Thus they began to move away from their image of a mouthpiece for a political party towards a more bi-partisan image. This did not mean that all newspapers were now ‘un-biased’, but as tabloid newspapers grew in popularity these openly biased papers were faded out. 

In the early 1940s the Federal Communications Committee established the ‘Mayflower Doctrine’ which prohibited editorializing by stations. This was then changed in 1949 when the Federal Communications Committee introduced the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in the hopes that all coverage of controversial issues would be balanced and fair. They believed that all media outlets had an obligation to provide reasonable opportunity for discussion of different points of view on controversial issues that were of public importance.  The fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937, which was a federal law that required stations to offer “equal opportunity” to all political candidates running for any office if they had allowed any other persons running for that same office the use the station. 

Yet the Fairness Doctrine disturbed many journalists, who considered it a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech and free press. They believed this should allow reporters to make their own decisions concerning the fairness and balance of stories. Fairness, in their view, should not be forced on them by the Federal Communications Committee. There for in order to avoid this requirement to go out and find opposing viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists began to simply avoided covering any controversial issues at all. This effect was exactly the opposite of what the Federal Communications Committee intended. 

But by the late 1980s the FCCs argument about finite resources was decreed by the Supreme Court as null and void. This was due to the increase in the number of Cable Channels available. Thus in 1985 the FCC issued its ‘Fairness Report’, stating that the Fairness Doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, and that it might in fact have a “chilling effect” and may also be in violation of the First Amendment. 

It has always been argues that the media promotes liberal views above those of conservatives. This argument has been used against journalists and editors for decades. Many reasons for this have been suggested; because of the nature of their work, journalists are very likely to meet many types of people from all walks of life. Reporters, especially when they are just beginning their careers, cover human interest stories, often meeting those people who have had some kind of tragedy in their life. This can be especially true in city’s, where critics argue that reporters are likely to form a liberal outlook by welcoming diversity and developing a miss trust of authority through their day to day dealings with politicians, policemen and big business’. 

Many reporters argue that while their views may be more liberal than those of the average population of America, these views do not affect their reporting. They argue that they are capable of reporting in a largely un-biased manner when covering critical stories. While many critics argue that most reporters can not separate their private political views from their work. Studies carried out by organisations like the Pew Charitable Trusts Project for Excellence in Journalism have found evidence that suggests that, as James Fallow suggests, “the reportorial elite- those based in large cities and working for large news organisations- have an outlook different from that of average Americans.” But by stating that Journalists have generally more liberal views than the public, does it not follow that if the majority of press was liberal, the public’s opinions would lean more naturally to that of the press? Unless as many reporters claim, they can separate their private political views and those they express. 

 % Journalists.% Public.
Liberal5523
Conservative1729
   
Pro-Choice8249
Pro-Death Penalty4775
Pro-Gun Control7850
Pro School Prayer2574
pro Affirmative Action8156
Pro-High Defence Spending1538
Pro Gay Employment rights.8955

This view can be backed up by a further poll carried out in the year 2000 by ‘Pew’ this poll found that the bias of media coverage for the Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W Bush was in largely in favour of the Republican candidate George W Bush. 

 Al GoreGeorge W Bush
Positive Press13%24%
Neutral Press31%27%
Negative Press56%49%
Total:100%100%

Some liberal reporters have stated that they are just as likely to give negative press to their own party as they are to the conservatives. When looking at the treatment of President Clinton by the press it can be noted that Clinton received just as much negative press from liberal reporters in comparison to conservative reporters. James Fallows notes that the treatment of Clinton by the supposedly ‘liberal press’ illustrates the problems of such a theory. He notes that Clinton should have been the ideal candidate to a liberal press, Clinton “advanced the ‘New Democrat’ positions that many liberal columnists had been advocating”…”Nonetheless, coverage of Clinton was both more hostile and more volatile than that of any president since Harry Truman.” One previous white house staffer has stated that peer pressure encourages reporters to not get to close to any Democratic White House, if they do so they are very likely to lose respect from other reporters. Fallows also noted the different treatment of presidents by their own party’s publications. “The semi-liberal magazine the New Republic had beaten the drum for the Clinton campaign. But even before Clinton took office the magazine inaugurated a ‘Clinton Suck-Up Watch’ feature, in which reporters were ridiculed for cozying up to Clinton too much. It is inconceivable that a comparable conservative publication- the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the National Review, or the American Spectator- would have published a ‘Regan Suck-Up Watch’ in the 1980s”.

It is also interesting to note that while the majority of reporters may class themselves as liberal, the majority of editors, senior writers and publishers hold more conservative views. This can be contributed to many things; for example many editors and senior staff are older then the average reporter, this may in tern have led to them having developed a more conservative attitude as they have increased in social and career status, and therefore have more to lose socially and financially. James Fallow believes that “concentrating on this cultural politics gap conceals a larger source of bias in the press… The supposed ‘liberalism’ of the elite press is more limited than many people believe. On economic issues- taxes, welfare, deficit control, trade policy, attitudes toward labour unions- elite reporters’ views have become far more conservative over the last generation, as their income has gone up.“ This conservatism can be noted in the fact that 80% of editorials favoured President Nixon, yet Nixon himself claimed that the media was highly biased towards liberals. 

When trying to discern the bias in the media it is interesting to note the opinions of the American public. Another poll carried out by ‘Pew’ concerning the thoughts of the public concerning the media found that 64% of the public wanted fair and un-biased media coverage, and a further 73% wanted Anti-American view points to be included in the news as well as Pro-American views.  When trying to discern whether the public believed their was any bias in the media in general, the ‘Columbia Journalism Review’ suggested that in general the public does not always believe there is a bias present in the media coverage. Yet ‘The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ published a report in which 78% of adults in the United States believe there was bias in the news media.  But the ‘ASNE’ also stated that there was no consensus definition of what “bias” meant. “Almost 30% see bias as ‘not being open-minded and neutral about the facts’; 29% believe bias is ‘having an agenda and shaping the news to report it’; another 29% define bias as ‘favouritism to a particular social or political group.’ and 8% said that bias is ‘all of these”’.  ‘ASNE’ also stated that the public was also split on the issue of liberal vs. conservative, with 47% saying their local paper tends to be more politically liberal than themselves, and 34% saying it tends to be more politically conservative than they are.

Brent Cunningham, writing for The Columbian Journalism review, stated that “Over the last dozen years a cottage industry of bias police has sprung up to exploit this fissure in the journalistic psyche, with talk radio leading the way followed by Shout TV and books like Ann Coulter’s Slander and Bernard Goldberg’s Bias. Now the left has begun firing back, with Eric Alterman’s book What Liberal Media? And a group of wealthy Democrat’s planning a liberal radio network.He believes that one result of this is hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias. 

When looking at whether there is any bias in the media it is important to study the media networks themselves. Republicans often argue that channels like CNN, NBC and ABC are heavily biased towards Liberals. Bernard Goldberg, an ex CBS reporter, states that channels like CBS use tactics like “pointedly identifying conservatives as conservatives, but don’t bother to identify liberals as liberals.” He states that this was done in order to make the liberals appear to be objective moderates, and thus by implying that liberals are the middle of the road this further implies that conservatives are more right-wing than perhaps they are. Goldberg suggests that it is for this reason that liberals can not recognise their own bias. 

Democrats argue that FOX, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is the mouthpiece of Pro- Conservative and Pro-Republican views. FOX’s tagline is its “Fair and Balanced reporting”. A documentary released in 2004 called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on Journalism is devoted to questioning FOX’s biased reporting. The documentary featured many interviews by ex-employees of FOX and other leading persons claiming to be for fair journalism. 

Frank O’Donnell, an ex-feature writer for FOX, stated that they were “ordered to carry right-wing Republican propaganda’. Clara Frank, a highly respected writer and broadcaster and also ex- broadcaster for FOX, stated that while working for FOX she had “Recognised all the Conservative experts who were on contract to FOX, who varied from talk-show hosts to Radio- show hosts and key political commentators”. But the liberal roster had only one person whose name she recognised, and all the others were unknown names. 

Several studies conducted by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have found that FOX highly favours right-wing conservative news. When looking at one and one interviews featured on FOX’s flagship news show ‘Special Report’, there is a large inconsistency between the political affiliations of its guests. Over 25 weeks of one and one interviews republican guests out weighed Democrats by 83% to 17% respectively. When looking at the affiliation of the Democratic guests who were interviewed, 5:1 were conservative Democrats rather than Liberal Democrats. 

12/02/2020 – BOSTON, MA. – Fox News stock on Dec. 2, 2020. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

While Democrats claim that channels like FOX, and radio shock jockeys like Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy make no pretence to be un- biased, Republicans often argue that it is channels like CNN, NBC and ABC that are heavily biased towards Liberals. FOX itself argues that liberals are unable to hear pro-liberal bias, because they are used to so much of it being on every other channel, and as FOX is ‘fair and unbiased’ their liberal bias is equal to their conservative bias, and thus smaller than the bias featuring on other channels. 

There are several organisations that have been set up to monitor the bias in the media. Groups like ‘Accuracy in Media’, ‘Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting’ and ‘Media Matters for America’ all claim to ‘watchdog’ the media for examples of media bias. Each of these organisations blames different factors for the amount of bias in the media. FAIR states that “Mergers in the news industry have accelerated, further limiting the spectrum of viewpoints that have access to mass media. With U.S. media outlets overwhelmingly owned by for-profit conglomerates and supported by corporate advertisers, independent journalism is compromised”.  Both ‘AIM’ and ‘Media Matters for America’ state their mission to set the record straight on important issues that have been ‘botched’ due to bias, ‘AIM’ believes that this bias is liberal, while ‘Media Matters for America’ believes the bias to be conservative.

 As these organisations themselves are often set up by one of the political party’s, they are likely to them selves be prone to bias. Only a small number of these organisations offer a reasonable way to get rid of bias in the media. ‘FAIR’ is one of the few organisations to offer what it believes could help the media rid itself of bias. It believes that “structural reform is needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting, and promote strong, non-profit alternative sources of information” 

Another survey carried out by PIPA (The Programme on International Policy Attitudes) shows that there is large discrepancies between the views of FOX’s audience and other news networks audiences regarding key issues.  When asked questions regarding the war in Iraq, for example “Has the US found links between Iraq and Al-Queda?” 67% of FOX viewers said yes, compared to 16% of PBS or NPR viewers. 

But it is unlikely that the media will ever be able to rid itself of any bias. In today’s media environment bias is as inevitable as conflict, and as long as there are so many avenues for expression in the media through newspapers, radio, television and the internet, everyone is able to voice their opinion.  No organisation in the world is likely to ever be able to police them all, and thus an environment does not exist in which any legislation or code of practice like the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ can be enforced. And while it can be complained that bias is present in any given column or news channel, as long as there is a medium that is accessible to all who wish to voice their opinion it must be asked if it matters whether this bias is conservative or liberal, so long as both may have their say somewhere.  

Bibliography:

Books:

  • Timothy E. Cook, Governing with the news, University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media undermine Americas democracy, Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Al Franken, Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them, Penguin, 2004
  • Bernard Goldberg, Bias, Regnery Publisher Inc, 2002.

Websites:

The strategy is content delivery.

One of the most universal truths is that if you don’t talk about what you are doing, how will people know? 

Everyone leads busy lives, we live in our own bubbles, and while we do generally try and be good humans and notice and recognise other people doing good things, it’s not always that easy to do.

That’s why I personally find things like twitter, reading Blogs and attending networking events or conferences useful, they give me a change to see what else is happening out there, who is doing what good things; they are opportunities to connect and share. 

However that is predicated on the basic foundation of having things to share. One of the things I’ve found, upon joining Difrent, is that we are not that great on sharing the great stuff we are doing. Which is a shame, as we are doing some really great stuff!

Neon sign with a heart and a zero next to it

Thankfully Rach and I are on the same page (perhaps unsurprisingly given we are both rather massive extraverts) so we’ve been having some good conversations within the SLT on what more we can do to develop better content and support our teams and people to be more confident in sharing what they are doing. 

Last week we had @RachelleMoose from Strange Digital come in and deliver a two day workshop for us on content strategy, focusing on how we could use video better to tell Difrent’s story. 

While I’ve always found the projects and culture video’s we developed at DWP Digital to be great, I’d never actually researched or seen any of the stats on why video is a good medium for sharing content from a business point of view. I knew I liked them, but I didn’t understand why there were useful! But the workshop taught me things like: videos generate 135% more traffic to a site than static content alone; and that 92% of people who watch a video on mobile devices, go on to share that video with others.

Phone showing the YouTube logo

It was especially interesting from an accessibility angle, to consider how we make sure our content as accessible to everyone, not simply in terms of sticking subtitles on all our videos, but things like understanding that audio needs to be understood and edited to ensure it doesn’t clash with anyone speaking and how different formats work etc.  For example, more than 85% of social videos are watched without sound, which helps explain why Closed Captions and Titles on videos are important.

Slide from Rachelle’s presentation on content strategy

I found the workshop a really good session to do as a Senior Leadership team, it really made us think about what messages we wanted to put out there, what we felt was the right way to tell our story and who we are as a company. 

We also did some competitor analysis to see what other content is out there; what messages resonated with us, and what didn’t; as well as discussing the formats we liked as a group etc. I got to put post it notes on a wall, which is always the sign of a good day for me.

@Rachel0404 sat in front of a wall of post it notes from one of Rachelle’s session

What I found especially beneficial, being new to the company, was asking some of our staff their thoughts on our culture and what they would like to see in the videos. Within Difrent we pride ourselves on encouraging and enabling everyone to be themselves and able to bring their whole selves to work; hearing from people how they felt Difrent embodies that was really encouraging. 

I’m really looking forward to seeing the output of the videos once they are made, and really think they will help us within Difrent work in the open better, talk about our amazing people and show the great work we are delivering.   

Sign saying ‘open’

#GovermentIsOpen

Why we need to bring user centric design into our Communications in the public Sector.

Having been involved in the hiring of many Content and Interaction Designers in the last few years, we’ve always preferred candidates from within the Public Sector, because they tend to have the same specialisms as we in the Digital Data and Technology (DDaT) Profession have, looking down our nose a little at applicants from the private sector who seem to be a bit of a ‘jack of all trades of design’ doing some social media, some UX and some content design.

A Neon sign showing 0 likes.

We want people who understand user centric design, who design services based on user needs. We want content designers used to working in multidisciplinary teams designing and developing services. We want Content Designers who are used to designing what ‘we’ class as Content, which having spoken to people interested in applying for our roles seems to be quite often different, or at least a narrower definition, to what the wider industry classes as Content. A search for content design jobs online shows the breadth of jobs that can fall under that category.

But in the last year or so I’ve begun to look at those we have left behind with this approach, those we have excluded and where this has left us, especially in terms of both recruitement, and our engagement with our users.

The Government Design community is constantly growing and expanding. With the salaries being offered quickly outsripping the number of candidates we have available. We are all constantly stealing candidates from each other, and those departments and agencies that can’t afford to pay that much, are left relaying on contractors because we can’t hire people.

Digital is seen as a channel for contact, and within the public sector we are moving our products and services online. However, social media is generally not considered as part of that transformation. It is not a transactional service, and therefor generally not considered within the remit of the Digital design teams. The content we put out on social media is seen as the same as we put out to the press, it is a tool for giving out information, as such the people on our social media teams tend to be comms professionals, or people with a background in journalism or marketting.

People looking at their phones

Interestingly Social Media teams are not generally included within the Government design community, and until a conversation 18 months ago with Joanne Rewcastle at DWP Digital I’d never really thought about that. The DDaT roles are based around the roles first needed by Gov.uk and expanded on from there as part of the work by GDS. As such these are the roles needed to design and develop transactional services. Which makes sense.

However, it means we are not thinking about what our users need from our social media. We are not designing the content we put on social media in the same way as the content we put on our digital services, or even our websites.

Also, it means when it comes to recruitment, we are not looking preferably on those people who have a social media or wider comms background as they are not, by the DDaT definition, Content Designers, and unfortunately it is currently quite hard for people working in Social media or wider comms to move over into the Content Design space as they tend to not have the experience of working in multidisciplinary teams or on transactional user needs driven services we are looking for.

With our digital services we have to ensure they are accessible. Our content designers and interaction designers are experts in making sure our content is accessible and understandable by everyone. But in my experience we haven’t been making sure our social media teams are experts in that as well.

A keyboard with an accessibility symbol

It was from Content Design and Accessibility expert colleagues I learned the rule of #CapatalisingYourHashTags so that they can be better understood by accessibility software. The same goes for images and emojis, are we all making sure we’re using them in such a way that screen readers and accessibility software can understand them? If our users are using social media, if that is a service we offer, then do we not have the same responsibility to make sure that service is as usable and accessible as any other service we offer? Even if it isn’t ‘transactional’.

Our Social media colleagues are generally great in helping us think about how to design messages in ways to engage the audiences on different channels, they understand the demographics of the users on the different platforms and what messages work best with which users where. They often have a wealth of data and evidence regarding our users that could benefit Product Development teams. When we’re considering as Product teams how to engage our users it seems to me that is a great time to engage with our social media colleagues. Equally, Product teams, through user research sessions and user needs analysis collect a lot of evidence and data teams that could benefit our Social Media colleagues. Unfortunately I’ve seen very few places pulling those skills together well.

Full credit to DWP Digital’s social media team here, where the team reached out and joined up with the content design community even though they were not officially part of it according to the DDaT professions, to ensure they were considering user needs in how they used social media. That team worked incredibly hard to build people’s awareness of how to use social media, to ensure content was accessible and usable.

A mix of laptops and smartphones on a desk

A few other Departments have done simillar, and I think that is a good thing. But I also think we need to look again at social media across the public sector. It’s not just a marketing tool anymore, In the age of the internet a good social media presence can make or break a company. Nothing is ever really gone from the internet, and that tweet or Facebook post from 5 years ago can come back to bite you on the bum.

So why are more places not using the principles of user design in our social media, or recognising the hard work of those people who are pushing for accessibility and user design in social media as much as those who are designing good content for a website or transactional service?

We need to recognise that the people within our Social Media teams and our Content Design teams have more in common than not, and that when we are recruiting we can gain a lot from people who come form both sides of that bridge.

The Day Data went Viral

This week the UK Government and Parliament petitions website has been getting a lot of attention, both good and not so good. This site has been a great example of how the Digital Service Standards work to ensure what we deliver in the public sector meets user needs.

On the 20th of February a petition was created on the petitions website to Revoke Article 50 and remain within the EU, on the 21st of March the petition went viral, and as of writing this blog has currently got 5,536,580 5,608,428 5,714,965 signatures. This is the biggest petition to have ever been started since the sites launch. Not only that, it is now the most supported petition in the world, ever.

Screenshot of the petitions website

The first version of the site was developed in 2010 after the election. Originally intended to replace the Number 10 petition site, which had a subtly different purpose. The new version of the Parliamentary petitions site was then launched in 2015, as an easy way for users to make sure their concerns were heard by the government and parliament. The original version of the service was developed by Pete Herlihy and Mark O’Neill back in the very early days of Digital Government, before the Digital Service Standard was born.

The site was built using open source code, meaning anyone can access the source code used to build the site, making it is easy to interrogate the data. With a number of sites, like unboxed, developing tools to help map signatories of petitions etc based off the data available.

Screenshot of the unboxed website

Within the Governments Digital Design standards using open source code has always been one of the standards some departments have really struggled with, it’s digital standard number 8, and is often a bit contentious. But looking at the accusations being lobbied at the Revoke Article 50 petition, that people outside of the UK are unfairly signing the petition, that people are creating fake emails to sign the petition etc, it shows why open source data is so important. While the petitions committee won’t comment in detail about the security measures they use; examining the code you can see the validation the designers built into the site to try and ensure it was being used seurely and fairly.

britorbot data analysis

Speaking of security measures, that’s digital service standard number 7, making sure the service has the right security levels, the petitions site apparently uses both automated and manual techniques to spot bots; disposable email addresses and other fraudulent activities. This works with digital standard number 15, using tools for analysis that collect performance data; to monitor signing patterns etc. Analysing the data, 96% of signatories have been within the UK (what the committee would expect from a petition like this).

tweet from the Petitions Committee from 22nd March

Another key service standard is building a service that can be iterated and improved on a frequent basis (digital standard number 5), which mean that when the petition went viral, the team were able to spot that the site wasn’t coping with the frankly huge amount of traffic headed it’s way and quickly doubled the capacity of the service within a handful of hours.

tweet from Pete Herlihy (product manager – petitions website)

This also calls out the importance of testing your service end to end (standard number 10) and ensuring its scalable; and if and when it goes down (as the petitions website did a number of times given the large amount of traffic that hit it, you need to have a plan for what to do when it goes down (standard number 11), which for the poor Petitions team meant some very polite apologetic messages being shared over social media while the team worked hard and fast to get the service back online.

tweet from the Petitions Committee from 21st March

The staggering volume of traffic to the site, and the meteoric speed in which the petition went vial, shows that at its heart, the team who developed the service had followed Digital Service Standard number 1. Understand your user’s needs.

In today’s culture of social media, people have high expectations of services and departments with there interactions online, we live in a time of near instant news, entertainment and information- and an expectation of having the world available at our fingertips with a click of a button. People want and need to feel that their voice is being heard, and the petitions website tapped into that need, delivering it effectively under conditions that are unprecedented.

Interestingly when the site was first developed, Mark himself admitted they didn’t know if anyone would use it. There was a lot of concern from people that 100,000 signatures was too high a figure to trigger a debate; but within the first 100 days six petitions had already reached the threshold and become eligible for a debate in the Commons. Pete wrote a great blog back in 2011 summing up what those first 100 days looked like.

It’s an example of great form design, and following digital service standard number 12, it is simple and intuitive to use. This has not been recognised or celebrated enough over the last few days, both the hard work of the team who developed the service and those maintaining and iterating it today. In my opinion this service has proven over the last few days that it is a success, and that the principles behind the Digital Service Standards that provided the design foundations for the site are still relevant and adding value today.

tweet from Mark O’Neill (part of the original team)