Journalists and news publications like to paint themselves as symbols of integrity who are fair, impartial, and above reproach. However, the rise of partisan media has become an undeniable and concerning trend.
Partisan journalism, where news outlets openly align themselves with a particular political ideology, has been a hallmark of the American media landscape from its inception. Join us as we explore a brief history of media partisanship, discuss how it contributes to the deepening political divide in the United States, and provide recent examples to shed light on this polarizing issue.
The history of partisan journalism in the United States is as old as the country itself. In the 18th and 19th centuries, newspapers demonstrated that they were unabashedly partisan with names like the Federalist, the Republican, and the Democratic-Republican.
It was known as “the era of dirty politics,” and these newspapers served as mouthpieces for political parties by offering a platform for promoting their views and attacking their opponents. The line between news and opinion was often blurred, but readers were at least aware of the political bias of the newspapers they chose to read.
Jump to the 20th century, and we can see how journalism strove to evolve towards a more neutral and objective model. The advent of radio and, later, television, spurred government intervention through legislative acts like the Fairness Doctrine, which provided oversight through criteria designed to ensure media outlets provided both sides of topics of public importance. Prominent news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post aspired to be impartial and present the facts as objectively as possible.
This hopeful tradition of objective journalism persisted for much of the 20th century and was considered the gold standard for news reporting. However, the landscape of American journalism began to change in the late 20th century and has continued evolving into the 21st century.
There are many factors involved in the rise of partisan media and biased journalism. The proliferation of internet and smartphone usage led to the rapid decrease of print media, which also means traditional newspapers had to join the clutter of online discourse and all that it involves or risk falling by the wayside.
It also created a void that creators of digital media were more than happy to fill.
The result is an increase in click-bait headlines, misleading sound bites, and negativity in a bid to capture the increasingly fleeting attention of media consumers. As a result, the so-called “yellow journalism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has given way to the “pink slime journalism” of the digital age. This type of writing, which is named after the pink goo used as filler in the fast food industry, is partisan fodder at its best. Well-funded outside actors create what appears to be local newspapers that are filled with low-quality “news stories.”
These publications have the purpose of swaying citizens to vote their way on certain issues, spread propaganda against opponents or legislation, or to paint a more favorable picture of a politician they back. As with chicken nuggets, they have all of the appearance of meat without providing any sort of value to their readers.
Three main factors contributed to this shift towards partisan journalism:
The rise of cable news networks. The launch of cable news networks like Fox News, News Max, OAN, and CNN played a significant role in promoting partisan journalism. Despite claims to the contrary, these networks openly aligned themselves with either conservative or liberal viewpoints and provided a platform for commentators and pundits who often blurred the lines between news reporting and opinion. After analyzing data from recent surveys, Pew Research determined that the level of trust in various news outlets bears a direct correlation between one’s ideological leanings and the source of the information.
The advent of the internet and social media. The internet revolutionized the media landscape, making it easier for partisan outlets to find and cater to specific niche audiences. Social media platforms further exacerbated this trend by allowing news consumers to self-select information that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs, creating information bubbles and partisan echo chambers.
The growth of economic incentives. In a media environment driven by advertising revenue and ratings, sensationalism and partisanship usually attract larger audiences. This economic incentive encourages news outlets to prioritize ideology over objectivity.
Another survey conducted by Pew found that viewer perceptions of certain media outlets serve to decrease the level of trust in both the source and the information itself. How the information is presented also plays a part in further polarizing society. For example, the content creators will use wording that inflames the audience, cherry-pick facts to misdirect them, or commit lies by omission.
Partisan media also contributes to the deepening political divide in the United States through:
Confirmation Bias: Partisan media outlets feed into the confirmation bias of their viewers. Audiences tend to seek out information that aligns with their existing beliefs, and partisan media readily provides this. This reinforcement of pre-existing views can make it challenging for people to consider alternative perspectives and engage in constructive political discourse.
Polarization: The constant stream of partisan news and commentary intensifies the political polarization in our society. Audiences are exposed to increasingly extreme viewpoints, which can lead to a lack of common ground and understanding between people of different political persuasions.
Misinformation: Some partisan outlets have been criticized for disseminating misinformation or promoting conspiracy theories in pursuit of their political agendas. This doesn’t just misinform the public. It also erodes trust in the media as a whole.
Erosion of Trust: Trust in the media has been steadily declining, in part due to the perception of bias in news reporting. When people believe that media outlets are driven by political agendas, they begin to view the entire institution of journalism with skepticism. This further divides society.
In recent years, several examples of partisan journalism have garnered attention and raised concerns about the impact of media polarization on American society. One of the most glaring examples in recent years is the case of Sinclair Media, which owns or operates nearly 300 local broadcast stations across the United States.
At each of these stations, reporters are ordered to run scripted segments, many of which are very biased, and include “must-run” editorials from Trump-aligned right-wing influencers. Some of the scripts also warn viewers that information on other stations is “fake news.”
Some stations or news anchors have revolted in recent years and refused to air the content or walked out. You can tell if a local station is owned by Sinclair by looking for the Circa logo in the corner of your TV screen or by simply consulting this list.
Sinclair Broadcast Group also owns or operates more than 75 right-wing radio stations that are strategically situated in large markets throughout the country. Such widespread consolidation of local news by one company with an agenda is demonstrated in stories like this one.
However, there are numerous examples of how media bias impacts the public in subtle and not so subtle ways. Here are just a few of them:
Coverage of the 2020 Election: The 2020 presidential election saw an intense focus on partisan media outlets. Networks like Fox News and MSNBC provided sharply contrasting coverage of the establishment candidates. They pretended independent candidates were non-existent. This led to a stark divide in public perceptions of the election. This division was exacerbated by false claims of election fraud that continue to this day despite heavy financial consequences.
COVID-19 Reporting: The coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by some partisan media outlets took on a distinctly political tone. Some outlets downplayed the severity of the virus, while others framed the pandemic as a political weapon. This politicization of a public health crisis had real-world consequences and deepened the divides in society.
January 6th Capitol Attack: The events of January 6, 2021, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, were widely covered across the media landscape. Some partisan outlets were accused of promoting conspiracy theories or downplaying the seriousness of the attack, contributing to the public's confusion and mistrust.
The Rise of Hyper-Partisan Websites: Online platforms like Breitbart and The Huffington Post have gained popularity by catering to ideologically extreme segments of the population. These websites have been criticized for sensationalism and biased reporting.
The keys to navigating media bias lie in understanding how it works and diversifying news sources to take in a range of viewpoints. When combined with critical thinking skills, individuals are better able to sift through the mountains of data they consume and get to the heart of important issues.
Independent candidates running for office can use this information to tailor their messaging and reach their intended audience through effective:
Media Strategy: Political candidates need to have a comprehensive media strategy to effectively reach and engage with voters. Understanding the role of partisan media in shaping public opinion helps candidates tailor their messaging to connect with specific audiences or navigate potentially hostile media environments.
Messaging Adaptation: Candidates can use their knowledge of partisan media to adapt their messages and policy proposals to resonate with different segments of the electorate. They can anticipate the questions and concerns that may arise during interviews or debates on partisan networks.
Media Relations: Political candidates often interact with the media during their campaigns. By understanding the landscape of partisan journalism, they can better navigate interviews, debates, and press conferences, recognizing potential biases and challenges they may encounter.
Crisis Management: In a media landscape where news can quickly become polarized, candidates need to be prepared for crisis management. Knowledge of how partisan media can amplify or distort events can help candidates respond effectively and mitigate damage to their campaigns.
Nonpartisanship and Compromise: An understanding of the media's role in political polarization can also inform candidates' approach to governance. Candidates who appreciate the impact of partisan journalism may be more motivated to seek nonpartisan solutions and bridge political divides when in office.
Reframing Issues: Partisan media often plays a significant role in framing political issues. Candidates can leverage this knowledge to shape their own narratives and influence the way their policy proposals are portrayed in the media.
Voter Awareness: Candidates can help inform voters about the presence and influence of partisan journalism. Educating constituents about the potential for media bias and the importance of media literacy can empower voters to make more informed decisions.
Campaign Funding: Understanding the media landscape, including the role of partisan outlets, can influence how candidates allocate campaign funds. They may choose to invest in advertising or outreach efforts that target specific media markets more effectively.
In essence, independent candidates who grasp the dynamics of partisan journalism are better equipped to navigate the modern political landscape. They can adapt their strategies, messages, and governance approaches to account for the polarization and division often amplified by partisan media outlets.
This understanding not only helps them run more effective campaigns, but also serves the broader goal of fostering a more informed and engaged electorate.
The prevalence of partisan journalism in the United States poses a significant challenge to the health of our democracy. The media, as the Fourth Estate, plays a crucial role in informing the public and holding those in power accountable. When media outlets prioritize money, power, and ideology over objectivity, it hampers their ability to fulfill these critical functions.
To address this issue, it's important for consumers of news to be aware of media biases and actively seek out a diversity of sources. Critical media literacy is more important than ever, so it’s up to us as individuals to become more discerning when evaluating the accuracy and credibility of the information we consume.
However, promoting and supporting high-quality journalism that adheres to principles of fairness and objectivity is also vital for preserving the integrity of the news industry.
Between the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, the landscape of journalism in the United States has evolved dramatically. This shift carries with it profound implications for political division and the public's trust in the media.
Media literacy is the first step toward neutralizing the growing dysfunction and divisiveness that’s holding America back. But, it will take vigilance and a renewed commitment to the principles of impartial journalism to ensure a healthy and informed citizenry.
Only by acknowledging and addressing the issue of partisan journalism can we hope to bridge the deep political divides that currently plague our society.
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