What does ‘mainstream media bias’ mean in a digital age?

The internet should mean that everyone has access to the same information, yet people still talk of a “mainstream media bias”.

Mitchell Labiak
22 June 2017

Craig Benzine speaking at VidCon 2012 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. Wikicommons/ Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.30 years ago, it was easy to silence ideas. Not reporting on something could guarantee its obscurity. The internet changed all that by allowing almost anyone to start up a blog, vlog, or website and do their own reporting.

By lowering the barrier to entry, would-be journalists and political commentators have emerged from every corner of the internet. As global internet access has increased, so too has our collective ability to make the media our own.

This scares dictators. It’s why countries such as North Korea, China, and Turkey have a censored internet, an extension of the other kinds of media censorship in those countries. As Xi Jinping put it, the media must “love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”

So far, so fascist. But what about in functioning democracies? Why is it that countries like the UK and the US talk of a mainstream media bias when, in theory at least, the media belongs to everyone?

Mainstream media bias in the UK

In the UK, there’s no denying that print media leans right. Of the seven biggest selling newspapers in the UK, the two most popular (The Daily Mail and The Sun) are right-wing, the Guardian and The Mirror are left-wing, and the rest are all right-wing. By sheer numbers, there are simply more right-wing newspapers being sold in the UK. For every one left-wing newspaper that gets sold, more than two right-wing newspapers get sold.

Online, things are more complicated. When news websites are ranked by the number of pageviews from the UK they received in February 2017, the biggest is the BBC. It’s not even close. The BBC received over 1.7 billion pageviews that month, 35% of all the traffic for the top 100 news sites in the UK. The BBC is followed by The Guardian, The Daily Mail, MSN, and the Daily Telegraph. Those sites received 331 million, 318 million, 293 million, and 169 million views respectively.

MSN is not a publication based in the UK. However, that’s what the internet does; it erodes borders. As such, over 318 million British people clicked onto MSN to get their news in February 2017.

So at first glance, it looks as if the internet eliminates media bias in the UK. With the assumption that the BBC is a neutral publication, the left-wing and right-wing publications for the top 100 biggest news sites in the UK get around 600 million pageviews each for the month of February 2017. The rest of the views go to business, tech, and local news publications which don’t lean one way or the other.

Except that local news does have a tendency to lean one way or the other depending on the politics of the city. What is more, you could argue that all those tech publications tend to lean left, espousing a pro-science, pro-equality Silicon Valley rhetoric. You could just as easily argue that all those business publications tend to lean right, espousing a pro-capitalist, pro-business economically liberal rhetoric.

Still, most of that cancels itself out with pageviews for those local, business, and tech publications shifting and changing month by month. What’s more, the issue pales in comparison to the elephant in the room: the BBC’s widely disputed neutrality.

The BBC leans...

For as long as there has been a BBC, there have been worries about BBC bias. More often than not, these accusations come from the government, with every Prime Minister since the BBC’s inception grumbling about its anti-government bias. This worrying reached fever pitch during Thatcher’s reign when the Tories did much more than grumble. They claimed, publicly and repeatedly, that the organisation had a left-wing anti-government bias. Conversely, there are those who claim that — during the Wilson era — the BBC had a pro-government bias.

Jump ahead to the modern day and the question of which way the BBC leans depends on who you ask. If you ask the left-wing Owen Jones of the left-leaning Guardian, he’ll tell you that the BBC leans right. If you ask Tory MP and current Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, he’ll tell you that the BBC leans left. The left-leaning New Statesman refers to a study claiming that the Tories get more coverage than Labour. The right-leaning Telegraph refers to a study claiming that left-wing policies get more coverage than conservative ones.

The problem with talking about political bias is that you inevitably run into political bias. With publications like the Guardian or the Telegraph, this isn’t a problem. Both publications are openly left-wing and right-wing respectively. As such, there is no debate. With regards to the BBC, this is a problem as the organisation claims to be neutral. And there is a debate.

Mainstream media bias in the US

Print media in the US has the opposite problem to the UK. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are the four biggest selling newspapers in the US. The Wall Street Journal is right-leaning, but the Washington Post and the New York Times lean left. So too does the Los Angeles Times. As such, it’s fair to say that more left-leaning newspapers get sold in the US than right-leaning ones.

Online, the four biggest news websites in the US according to pageviews in April 2017 were MSN, ESPN, Drudge Report, and Google News. Three of those are news aggregator sites which link out to other news sources and one of them is a sports news site. Discounting those, the next biggest website is CNN. This is followed by Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Sport (which can be discounted as well), Fox News, and then the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed.

The only openly conservative news site on that list is Fox News. The others are either aggregators, sports news websites, neutral, or liberal. None of this should be surprising considering that since 1971 journalists in the US have more often identified as liberal than conservative. In 2013, just seven per cent of journalists identified as Republican compared to over a quarter of journalists identifying as Democrat.

Are news aggregators neutral?

In the US and the UK, news aggregators receive huge numbers of pageviews. Unlike the BBC, these sites don’t produce their own content. All they do is link to other news sources. Still, it’s perfectly possible for a news aggregator website to express bias through the news it chooses to link to and how it presents this news.
This further complicates the question of online media bias in the US. Drudge Report has a clear pro-Trump bias, being run by the openly pro-Trump Matt Drudge. Yet, with Google News it’s not as black and white and, just as with the BBC, it depends on who you ask.

The left-leaning Guardian has accused the search engine of having a right-leaning bias with its autocomplete function. The right-leaning Wall Street Journal has accused the search engine of a left-leaning bias with its results. The left-leaning Independent argues that Google’s image search has a race bias. The right-leaning Washington Times argues that Google is run by a bunch of liberals.

The new news

If rigorous analysis of online news media and news aggregators reveals anything it’s that digital news is fractured. What’s more, besides some enormous organisations, there isn’t really any such thing as a ‘mainstream news media’ online.

Though just because news media is free from an overall bias it doesn’t mean that social media is. And just because there isn’t political ideology bias doesn’t mean that there isn’t bias. For social media, it’s not so much a matter of left and right but a matter of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. Google does have a bias. Though, as with all of the other social media giants, it may be a different breed of bias.

In 2016, a survey revealed that 62% of Americans get their news from social media sites. Online news is important, but it’s evidently not where the vast majority of web users spend their time and less and fewer people are getting their information directly from news sites.

YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, Google: these are some of the biggest websites in the world. News websites don’t even come close in terms of usage and influence. And, while there is no one person or political group who controls these sites, if there is one thing that none of them like, it’s “controversial” or “offensive” content.

This dislike of ideas which upset the status quo has helped to censor people from all over the political spectrum. So whether it’s because you are pro-Trump, pro-LGBT, pro-menstruation, or even pro-breast cancer awareness, your ideas are going to be suppressed by huge organisations who would rather that your ideas were a little less disruptive. None of this is done in the name of pushing a particular political agenda. It’s done in the name of pleasing advertisers, who like it when things are vanilla, and keeping as many people on their websites as possible.

This is censorship, and it is worrying, and it is something that those who value freedom of speech should protest against. However, it would be too simplistic to call it a right-wing or a left-wing bias. While it’s true that both conservatives and radicals have reason to be critical of Facebook’s neutrality, the real issue is the way in which all social media algorithms try to feed us information which is uncontroversial and already confirms our existing biases. 

Across all social media sites, news feeds are personalised. As such, if you lean politically one way or the other then your experience on that site will lean with you. Prominent American YouTuber Craig Benzine noted the true extent of this after the 2016 US election. Despite his massive social media reach, he recalls how almost every post he saw in relation to Trump’s victory was negative.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

There is a media bias online, but it’s not a media bias which fits into the narrative of the left or the right. According to openly right-wing Fox News, alliances such as the “Deep State” are fueling an anti-Trump media conspiracy. The story is half-correct. The media is overwhelmingly critical of Trump, but it’s also half-incorrect. After all, the British left just as easily argues that there is an anti-Corbyn media conspiracy.

It’s true that ‘the establishment’ is often against both men. But the idea that the ‘establishment’ is one entity is wrong. Different countries are filled with different establishments, each with their own interests. Moreover universities, banks, medical research bodies, international trade associations are made up of a range of experts with a range of ideas. When scientists unite against Trump or economists unite against Corbyn, that’s not a conspiracy: it’s a difference of opinion.

The bad news is that, while the people are more than willing to call out the political biases of others, they are terrible at recognising their own political biases. Reactionist right and reactionist left are becoming increasingly polarised by their own social media bubbles. The good news is that the increase of free and open internet access across the world has handed the media to the people. The result is a change in grammar. The old media was singular; the new media are plural.

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