Yes, the media are biased but not in the way conspiracy theorists assume, says media uber-critic Brooke Gladstone, managing editor of National Public Radio's "On the Media."
The show, which she co-hosts with maverick reporter Bob Garfield, takes equal aim at news outlets and the folks who try to sway them. So it was fitting that Gladstone's recent audience in Salt Lake City was made up of members of the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Greater Salt Lake chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and that Gladstone began by offering examples of ethical lapses on both sides.
Public relations sins include the use of fake "grass-roots" organizations and panels of "experts," she said, reserving special disdain for The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition and its junkscience.com. Created by cigarette company Philip Morris, the coalition and Web site has challenged scientific research in general in order to debunk the ills of secondhand smoke in particular, she said.
On the media side, there's TV journalism's use of the "video news release," or VNR, a packaged public relations product made to look like news. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, she said, 100 percent of stations surveyed said they have run VNRs, "most often without disclosing the source."
People cite bias as the most widespread ethical behavior of journalism, but if by "bias" you mean a medium that leans left or right, Gladstone says she doesn't buy that. The biases that do exist, she says, have more to do with the mechanics and philosophy of newsgathering itself, such as:
• The bias toward making a profit, and therefore the corollary "bias toward conflict" in order to draw audiences.
• A bias toward the immediate and fresh, all relayed breathlessly, "even when there is nothing to cover."
• A visual bias, which means the topics that aren't photo-friendly (economics and policy issues, for example) get overlooked.
• A "bad news" bias, which makes the world look dangerous and all politicians corrupt.
• A narrative bias, preferring plot and protagonists-antagonists instead of ambiguity, suggesting that all events can be easily understood and that all have an easily explained cause and effect.
• A fairness bias, which posits that reporters need to give equal time to "both sides," even when one side has been discredited.To assume that the media are part of a conspiracy theory, says Gladstone, is to ignore the fact that "the profession is not nearly organized enough" to pull it off.