Towards the end of the 2016 election cycle, people started chattering about the bias of mass media. It didn’t really seem to matter which candidate–networks were accused of having a bias both for and against both candidates. A quick Google search returns hundreds of results, all posted in the weeks leading up to the election and beyond. This is something that, for whatever reason, rocketed into the American Consciousness in October.
The reality is that media is absolutely biased, but that’s not really the point. The point is that media is inherently biased. There is no such thing as an unbiased media source. One might go so far as to say the medium is the bias.
What is a Medium?
Marshall McLuhan is a literary critic widely known for the axiom, “the medium is the message.” What this means in context here is that the medium, in this case MSNBC or FOX News, changes the content of the message by simple being the container for the message. So if you were to hear the exact same story using the exact same words on MSNBC and again on FOX News, the message you receive would be different between the two networks because each, as a medium, changes the content of the message.
For example, imagine that your grandmother told you about a new technical feature of the iPhone. How would you respond or react to that information? Then, imagine that you heard the exact same message, down to the exact same words, from Engadget. How would you respond to that information? That is the heart of the medium is the message. The message can be the exact same between your grandmother and Engadget, but you would interpret the messages very differently depending on the medium delivering the message.
One of the examples I love to give when talking about the persuasive nature of a medium is the chair. A chair is persuasive and a medium that conveys a message, believe it or not. Imagine just for a second that you were an alien who didn’t bend at the waist and the knees. If you looked a chair, without seeing a human first, would you know what to do with it? The answer is probably no, you wouldn’t know what to do.
Without the additional context of the shape of a human and an understanding of our propensity for sitting and what sitting is for a human, you would have no idea about the purpose of a chair. That’s why a chair is a medium and why its persuasive. it conveys a message and it persuades you to use it a certain way, in certain situations based on a whole bunch assumptions and cultural norms.
What is not a Medium?
This gets a little chewy. According to McLuhan everything that conveys a message is a medium. Then he says everything conveys a message. So everything is a medium. The only medium that doesn’t convey a message in and of itself is a light bulb because it’s the medium by which we consume all other media.
So media contains media contains media. Looking at news outlets, there is the medium of the TV. There’s also the medium of the reporter delivering the news, the network that the news channel appears on, the words the report is using to convey the message–the list goes on and on. It’s a little bit like Russian nesting dolls – but you can never actually find inner most doll.
So at each one of these levels, the medium is changing the message it contains. The medium persuades us to interpret the message in a specific way. The medium, the very container that carries your message is persuasive and changes the message.
News is Biased by Virtue of Being
When we talk about main stream media being biased, we are making logical leap that at some point the mainstream media was unbiased, which isn’t the case. The media cannot be anything BUT biased. It’s a pointless argument to lament the lack of objective coverage in the media because it’s an impossible ideal. Each medium- whether the TV, the news anchor, the network, the colors on the screen–everything changes the way we interpret the messages we are receiving.
Are we screwed?
No, not at all. This doesn’t mean that everything is lost and that we are left to the rhetorical whims of giant news networks. What this means is that we, as media consumers, should recognize that everything comes with an asterisk that says this message is only one perspective, one part of the truth. It means that we have to acknowledge that biases will never go away. It means realize that every story we are told has a perspective, and that to get closer to (T)ruth of the story, we have to look at different perspectives.
This doesn’t mean that news outlets shouldn’t try to check their bias. Or that we as citizens shouldn’t hold them accountable to those biases. It also doesn’t mean we should call out deliberately manipulative tactics. But it does mean we have better places to spend our time and energy than freaking out about how the media is biased because they don’t tell the story we necessarily want to hear.