Behind the Scenes of the Mainstream Media

Thinking About Popular Media, Part 1

by Patricia Engler on June 23, 2021
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In today’s culture, where concerns about media bias and misinformation have skyrocketed, how can we apply biblical, critical thinking to popular headlines? To start, let’s look at how the news industry works so we can better think about where our information comes from.

It’s just so hard to know what to believe anymore.

I often hear these words in conversations about the latest headlines—and the sentiment is certainly common. A recent Gallup poll revealed that a whopping 83% of Americans believe today’s news contains “a great deal” or “fair amount” of political bias.1,2 And multiple researchers, recognizing the problem of media bias, have come up with technologies to automatically detect slanted news reporting.3

Typically, such slanting results from presenting facts through a single lens. And it’s no secret that mainstream media tends to interpret facts through the lens of a secular worldview, beginning from the belief that the authority for truth is human reasoning rather than God’s Word. The trouble is, rejecting God as the source of absolutes makes “truth” an issue of subjective human interpretation. Reality becomes a matter of personal perception, canonized in culture by whoever is shouting the loudest.4

Enter the media. Many alive today can remember a time when news media’s goal was to report objective facts. But facts depend on truth, which is a problem for cultures that have given up their foundation for caring about truth, or for exercising logic. In that case, select facts merely become convenient accessories for creating propaganda, which persuades using emotion, aesthetics, rhetoric—anything besides logic. Anything that sells.5

With this cultural truth crisis in mind, let’s look at where today’s news tends to come from. The point in doing so is not to position us to be critical of the news, but to think critically about specific news claims by applying Critical Thinking Check #3, Check the Source.

How the News Works

Back in university, I took a critical thinking course with a textbook section titled Inside the News.6 The authors described how the process of deciding what counts as “news”—and how to report it—can easily result in the media’s marketing a distorted picture of reality. For example, reporters may feel obligated to write in a way that avoids offending certain officials, spokespersons, or other information sources. Passively reporting information from a biased selection of sources may also misrepresent a story. As the textbook observed,

Most reporters aren’t investigative reporters, going off into the world and digging up the hard facts. Often, the news is simply handed to them by spokespersons and public relations experts hired by governments, corporations, and others who want to get their own version of the facts into the media. In these situations, reporters may report only what they’re told at press conferences or in press releases. The result is canned news that’s slanted toward the views of the people who supply it.7

The people who help supply the news certainly aren’t the only ones who influence the news. Another major source of influence comes down to money. In the textbook’s words, “The old ideal of journalism as primarily a public service and not a cash cow has seldom been able to withstand the corporate push for profits.”8

The authors explained that most news outlets primarily make profits not from subscription sales but from advertising. Advertisers purchase spaces on news outlets to reach those platforms’ audiences. Because platforms with the largest audiences typically gain the most advertisers, news outlets tend to select stories—and write them in such a way—to appeal to the largest audiences.

This helps explain why a lot of “news” the public consumes isn’t a buffet of objective facts so much as a smorgasbord of scandal and sensation, catered to entertain more than to educate. As two seasoned Washington Post reporters summarized in an excerpt quoted in my textbook,

All-news cable television channels and radio stations—to which the networks have ceded much of the routine coverage of serious national and foreign news—fill many of their hours as cheaply as possible with repetitive, bare-bones news summaries and talk shows that present biased opinions and argument as though they were news.9

Along Came the Internet

In today’s digitalized information age, new heights of competition for readership have layered even heavier pressures on news outlets to attract audiences. At the same time, digitalization also presents new ways for outlets to figure out what their audiences want to hear. Where the news industry once relied on analog feedback in forms like letters to the editor, news outlets today gain instant insights into audience response through online comments, click tracking, social media performance, and web analytics.10

All these tools unleash novel ways for news outlets to be influenced by their audiences. One research team described multiple studies showing three areas where this happens:11

  1. Topic selection: choosing which stories to cover.
  2. Story placement: deciding where each story physically appears on a news website’s layout.
  3. Performance evaluation: measuring the success of each story (usually in terms of click rates).

To illustrate how audience feedback influences news story selection, the researchers explained,

Meetings to plan a day’s news coverage usually begin with a discussion of trending topics on social media from which editors determine the events, issues, or topics in which online audiences might be interested. Topics that have attracted a lot of clicks in the past tend to be covered more often.  . . . Studies have found that audience interest in particular topics, reflected in search query volumes or public discussions in online forums, subsequently influences news coverage. These findings suggest a reversal to traditional notions of agenda setting, as journalists respond to the topics in which audiences are interested, not the other way around.12

In other words, the story selection we’ll find on many news sites doesn’t necessarily give us a full picture of what’s really going on in the world so much as a snapshot of which topics are trending in culture.

How Readers Influence Each Other

Digital feedback doesn’t only influence news producers; it also affects news consumers. For example, even if we don’t mean to promote a certain story, simply clicking on a headline can boost a story towards the “most read” section of a news site, where others will more likely see it. Some research suggests that people’s preference for reading crowd-endorsed stories is so strong, it even overrides our human tendency to seek information we’re bound to agree with.13 Part of the draw of popular articles may be due to the power of conformity—our tendency to make decisions based on other people’s actions, even though majority consensus is not always correct.

One place where majority opinion can especially influence readers is in comments sections of online articles. Studies suggest that simply seeing negative comments—even if those comments are full of logical fallacies—biases other readers to view the story negatively as well.14 This highlights the importance of judging messages based on the logic of their contents, not the nature of their comments.15

A Call for Critical Thinking

All these observations remind us to apply biblical, critical thinking to the headlines we encounter. Notably, the reality that the news can be unduly influenced by sources, reporters, advertisers, and audiences doesn’t imply that we should automatically disregard the news. After all, a message is not true or false based only on its source or on factors which may influence or motivate that source.

Reading the news (especially from multiple credible sources, including those that offer biblical perspectives)16 is an important way to stay informed—and to know how to pray for our world. But along the way, understanding how the news industry works helps us remember to ask critical thinking questions like, “Is there another side of this story I’m not hearing? Why might I be hearing this story, perspective, or aspect of an issue, but not others? Is it because other information isn’t logically robust or relevant, or because of some other reason that’s irrelevant to logic—like unpopularity or lack of entertainment value?”

Thinking critically about mainstream media also involves remembering that the news we see, however carefully reported, has ultimately been filtered through several layers of human fallibility. No human is all-knowing, unerring, or completely unbiased.17 God, however, does know everything. And he never makes mistakes. How assuring to know that we can believe his Word, wholly and rationally, forever.

Further Reading:

Tools for Critical Thinking

Monkeying with the Media

The Rest of the (Media) Story

Can We Trust Science Media?

Footnotes

  1. Gallup and Knight Foundation, “American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy,” November 9, 2020 (updated version), https://knightfoundation.org/reports/american-views-2020-trust-media-and-democracy/.
  2. Of course, the statistic that a large percentage of people believe the media is biased does not itself prove the media is biased, because majority opinion does not determine truth. However, the fact that media bias can be detected by various technologies reflects its widespread existence.
  3. Some examples are given in Timo Spinde et al., "Automated Identification of Bias Inducing Words in News Articles Using Linguistic and Context-Oriented Features," Information Processing & Management 58, no. 3 (2021): 102505. (Noteworthily, some of the wording in the study itself could be considered biased, highlighting how definitions of “biases” may be influenced by preconceived ideas.)
  4. Because society can’t function without objective reality, I’ve read secularists argue staunchly for objective (if not absolute) truth. However, for examples of why secular worldviews cannot provide consistent foundation for objective truth (including moral truths), see this blog post and its linked resources.
  5. Or, in many cases (as history has shown repeatedly, including in 20th-century regimes), anything that pushes “the agenda of the day.”
  6. Chris MacDonald and Lewis Vaughn, The Power of Critical Thinking, 4th Canadian ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2016), 146–150.
  7. MacDonald and Vaughn, Power, 148.
  8. MacDonald and Vaughn, Power, 147.
  9. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, The News About the News (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 10, quoted in MacDonald and Vaughn, 2016.
  10. Eun-Ju Lee and Edson C. Tandoc Jr., “When News Meets the Audience: How Audience Feedback Online Affects News Production and Consumption,” Human Communication Research 43, no. 4 (2017): 436-449.
  11. Lee and Tandoc Jr., “When News Meets.”
  12. Lee and Tandoc Jr., “When News Meets,” 438–439 (in-text references removed).
  13. Solomon Messing and Sean J. Westwood, “Selective Exposure in the Age of Social Media: Endorsements Trump Partisan Source Affiliation When Selecting News Online,” Communication Research 41, no. 8 (2014): 1042–1063.
  14. Fabian Prochazka, Patrick Weber, and Wolfgang Schweiger, “Effects of Civility and Reasoning in User Comments on Perceived Journalistic Quality,” Journalism Studies 19, no. 1 (2018): 62–78.
  15. On a related note, research also suggests that people are less likely to think news websites are biased if those websites feature high-quality visuals—even though photo quality isn’t necessarily relevant to the stories’ content. Again, this shows the importance of evaluating messages based on the truth and logic of the messages themselves. (Brendan Spillane, Séamus Lawless, and Vincent Wade, “Increasing and Decreasing Perceived Bias by Distorting the Quality of News Website Design,” in Proceedings of the 32nd International BCS Human Computer Interaction Conference 32 (2018), 1–13.)
  16. Some may say that Christian news sites are, by definition, biased and should be avoided. But all humans—including scientists and news reporters—are biased by some form of worldview presuppositions. A biblical worldview is consistent with itself and with the observable universe (see also Is the Bible True? Q&A), while a secular worldview leads to internal contradictions and origins assumptions, which are inconsistent with observable science. So, it is logical to view the world (including newsworthy events) through a biblical worldview—and therefore, to read news from a biblical perspective. For example, check out Answers News on Answers TV.
  17. For more information on presuppositional biases, check out the articles at https://answersingenesis.org/presuppositions/.

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