In the age of rampant misinformation it can be hard to know what’s real and what’s not. In fact, it might be better called information saturation. It can be hard to know the difference between news and propaganda. So what do we do? Well, I’m here to tell you that first of all, all media is biased. Yes, I said ALL MEDIA IS BIASED! That includes, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, local news channels, independent media. All media is biased. And that’s okay, and I’ll tell you why.
Let me begin by explaining my biased opinion on why I think all media is biased. I was a journalism undergrad, with a small propensity for social justice. In my mass media studies classes when the teacher was describing the business of media, I began to look around and question: we call this ethical journalism? In the same breath, there was this distinction between “yellow journalism”, propaganda, sensationalism, tabloids and “real news.” As if real news sources had the moral high ground on their ability to be “fair and balanced” in their representation of the news. The truth is journalism and media is an inherently biased field because of the political economy of mass media, because of the foundations of white supremacy upon which all US institutions were built including journalism and media, and because of basic human unconscious bias.
Follow the Money
Back in my early grad school years when I first dove head first into critical media studies, I had a simple conclusion: follow the money of any media source and it will tell you all you need to know. Most media industries make money based on advertisements, including social media. Why are Instagram and Tik Tok free to the consumer, yet people like Mark Zuckerberg are millionaires? Because of advertising. I won’t get into a lengthy discussion about the problems of the advertising industry, but let me try and paint a picture for you. In traditional newspapers and magazines, historically there would be a 70/30 divide between advertisements and content. 70% ads, 30% content. Today, there might even be more given that many forms of media now integrate advertising directly into the content. Given this breakdown, if a newspaper was doing an investigative piece about a company that was advertising in that paper, how likely would it be that the paper would publish something negative about the company for fear of losing that ad revenue? Thus, information is already being censored and filtered through loyalty to advertisers. This is but one example of media bias toward advertising interests.
Who owns the media?
Now let’s take a look one step back, before advertisers are even brought into the equation we must remember that most media outlets are businesses in a capitalist society owned by mostly rich white cishet men looking to make billions. According to an article in Forbes from 2016, 15 billionaire WHITE MEN and 6 corporations own all of US media outlets. For those of us who recognize that our country was founded on the values of white supremacy solidified through chattel slavery and indigenous genocide, and recgonize that white folks today particularly white men are the direct beneficiaries of the generational wealth that was the product of these institutions, we must question what ideologies these white billionaire men disseminate through their media outlets.
Why is it that when there is a mass shooting by a white man there is no mention of his race, but when there is a local robbery by a Black or Latino man race becomes central to the story? Even so-called legitimate news sources will perpetuate this kind of reporting. Why? Because this racialized rhetoric is so normalized in our society and institutionalized by generations of media conglomerates. Because rich white men hold a white supremacist world view and disseminate those ideologies into their media outlets. They come from generations of white supremacists who made their money based on those ideologies, therefore it is in their best interest to maintain the status quo and continue to normalize racialized rhetoric.
This is but one example of the way oppressive ideologies get perpetuated in the mass media. We can do a whole other article on sexist ideologies in mass media. Which brings me to my next point, white supremacy is the air we breath, it’s the world we were all born and raised into. We were taught the normalized understanding of humans through a racial hierarchy perspective through education, societal norms and media. Because white supremacy is the air we breathe, we learn at an early age to see the world through a racialized lens, unless and until we become conscious of this and make a concerted effort to unlearn this.
Furthermore, it’s basic human nature to interpret information through your own perspective. Imagine being at a party and a fight breaks out (not sure why I always use this example, maybe lived experience for me?), how many different versions of the story will be told? Each version of the story will depend on the person’s proximity to the situation, the people involved, etc. Not to mention that the way they tell the story will be filtered through their views and opinions on the situation, through their own lived experiences, etc. And for each person, their version is “the truth.” So who are we to believe?
Now imagine a riot breaks out in Los Angeles, and the news media owned by white men, with advertisers that are also probably owned by white men are reporting on the situation. How will the reporting reflect a perspective and rhetoric that upholds the values and ideologies of white supremacy? Yet we as consumers of the news are told that reporters are objective and simply reporting the truth of what happened. And we are told this over and over again for years, for our whole lives. We might come to interpret the world through a very similar lens. This is to say that the way news is reported, the language used to describe a situation, the images shown, etc. are often coded in racist and otherwise oppressive ideologies.
Not to mention the reporters themselves, depending on their own relationship to what they are reporting might have different perspectives, and thus create narratives that are entrenched in these perspectives. This is basic human nature! Even scientists cannot be fully objective, the historical existence of scientific racism proves this, but again, that’s a topic or a different article.
Objectivity vs. Transparency
So where does this leave us? I don’t want my arguments here to presume we don’t have agency, we have a lot of agency. It is just very important that we understand what we are up against so we can best utilize our agency in these oppressive dynamics.
Bias is a normal party of humanity, we all have biases based on our lived experiences, our education, etc. The problem is when we, and in this particular case, the media, tries to sell us on the idea that somehow they have the ability to supersede humanity and stay completely objective. Absolute objectivity robs us of our very humanity, denies our subjectivity as a person experiencing the world around us. We and the media alike don’t have to negate our biases, we don’t have to pretend to be objective. Objectivity should not be the goal of the media, transparency should be the goal.
I’m here to say it’s okay to be subjective. I’m here to give permission to journalists to have opinions and give analysis while being transparent about how they gather that analysis based on personal experience as well as research and investigation.
Let’s call for more transparency on how media is funded, how advertisers influence media. Who owns your newspaper, magazine, website, etc? How much private and public funding do you get? What do advertisers pay you, and what do they get in return? Which leads me too…
Critical Media Literacy
Here I am 15 years from when I first started to read, write and talk about mass media as a young Chicana scholar. I wrote my dissertation on all of this, so I consider myself somewhat of an expert. And in some ways my ideas have become more nuanced and expansive, and in other ways, at my core I’m saying the same thing I always have. We need critical media literacy, and we need to teach it at an early age. I know this is a lot to ask in the age of backlash against critical race theory, and yet here I am.
I won’t give you a complete breakdown of my dissertation, only to mention that I theorized about what I called transformative critical media literacy which I define as follows: Learning how to critically read images produced and put forth by the mass media, recognize them as representations of institutionalized oppression, so as not to internalize and perpetuate the oppressive messages, while facilitating a process by which media viewers can imagine ways to transform the oppressive image to one of empowerment and liberation. In my dissertation, I give a lengthy description of how I see this playing out. Here, I will mention the basic parts I think we all need to best equip ourselves in this era of information saturation.
We need to begin to ask questions of all forms of media: images, news, pop culture, social media, etc. This does not mean everything is innately suspect, or wrong, or “fake news.” You see because I think some people love to say, “question everything,” but then turn around and use sources they themselves don’t question. When I say ask questions, I am not telling you to look for the fallacies per se, nor am I saying to seek confirmation bias. I’m saying there are simple ways we can all become investigative journalists ourselves on our way to understand any particular newsworthy situation. We can ask questions like the following:
- Who owns this news source, website, channel, media?
- What can I learn about the person or company who owns this and how their bias might influence the information?
- Who are the advertisers? How might they influence the information?
- Who is the author, what is their background, expertise, etc?
- Who is the publisher, what is their background, expertise etc.?
- What conclusions are made, how are these conclusions arrived at, what research has been done?
- What sources are used, are they credible?
- What racist, sexist, etc stereotypes are perpetuated?
In seeking answers to some of these questions, we might run into a lack of transparency by media companies to tell us who they are, what their biases or values might be. They sell us on the notion of objectivity while perpetuating rhetoric and curating information that upholds the status quo of oppressive power dynamics including white supremacy. The very idea of some hierarchical objective truth is a white supremacist construct.
We Need More Media Transparency
If the media were more transparent about how they gather and construct information, we as consumers would be able to make more informed decisions on how we want to engage with the media. We would be better able to decipher what media sources are in alignment with our personal values. Particularly during a pandemic when lives are literally at stake, transparency is key to be able to know what media sources truly have our best interests at heart.
What if we just admit our biases, become transparent about our subjectivity? It’s okay to be biased, just let us know what your biases are so we know how to interpret the information for ourselves. For example, FOX news should just admit they are a conservative news source and stop trying to hide behind some false moral superiority of being “fair and balanced.” I mean we know that’s never going to happen, because again, moral superiority is the motto of white supremacy. But even more liberal media sources would serve to be more transparent, to normalize that bias exists in all of us, no one is truly capable of just turning that off.
Let’s also take for example, the recent situation of a certain Latinx media platform that was called out for publishing plagiarized articles. When trying to do some investigating on how this could happen, I quickly discovered it had happened more than once, but it was not clear who the editors of the platform are, or who the publishers are, or what their business structure is. Most surprising of all was that this platform who’s content is specifically curated for a Latinx audience is white-owned! I won’t even get into why this is f-ed up in terms of the way they see Latinx readers.
What I will say, is that we need more transparency about the values and owners of this platform so that we as consumers can decide for ourselves how we want or don’t want to engage with platforms that may not share our values.
We will always interpret things through our own experiences, our own worldviews. But if we knew what your worldviews are, we can then consider how that might impact the information you are putting out into the world, and then have better ground to stand on as critical thinkers. When there is a lack of transparency and/or a lack of acknowledgement of subjectivity, it’s harder for us the consumer of media to know if you are just selling us rhetoric that merely upholds oppressive systems inherently built to harm us or is this information truly meant to empower us?
There is always propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum, so this is not about conservative vs liberal or whatever other binary nonsense. This is about basic critical media literacy. We as consumers can empower ourselves to ask questions of ALL media sources. Then ask ourselves which most closely align with our values? And make decisions from a fully informed perspective. On the other hand, this is a call to the media, ALL media forms to be more transparent about who they are, what their values are, and to let go of the desire to be objective. Subjectivity frees us of the pressure to be right and allows us to be critical thinkers.
I will say, due to the political economy of the media, transparency will be difficult. Especially for big media companies that will always be at the whim of capitalism, which will in turn continue to perpetuate the oppressive lens by which information is curated. Thus, critical media literacy is ever so vital. And of course, because our school system is also another institution of white supremacy, critical thinking in general is not a priority as part of the school curriculum or pedagogy. We know this to be true by the backlash against critical race theory, which also at its core is about critical thinking in relation to the history of race in this country. If there is anything that is subject to disrupting the status quo people lose their minds.
By, for, and about US
Alas, I still always have deep hope and faith in the US. We can unlearn the values of white supremacy deeply embedded in our social norms, through education and being in community with others who hold our same values. And we can create our own media outlets that are founded at the core on decolonial values that seek to create ways to be more transparent and inform and empower the reader, not merely to create a commodity to be sold.