Early on in my career, I worked for a Pulitzer Prize winning editor. This was before the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet. Howard James was a brutal boss for his reporters, because he demanded perfection and absolute impartiality in our reporting – core tenants of the prize he earned. While working for Howard, I watched the news industry radically change as we ushered in the use of computers, digital film, and eventually the internet. With the introduction of this technology, we watched the news-cycle speed up to the point that decisions constantly needed to be made regarding the balance between thoroughly vetting a story versus “scooping the competition.” This problem continued to compound with the rise of 24-hour news stations and fast-moving online and social sources. In addition, the low barriers to entry for online participants led to increased competition looking to upend established news brands, which has led to organizations looking for other competitive advantages such as focusing on, and adjusting their messaging towards, targeted demographics.
Over-time this has led to nearly all news organizations adjusting their messages to appeal to the particular demographic they seek to capture. Put simply, all sources of news are biased in one form or another, so, yes, “fake news” does exist and you cannot escape it.
To survive, news outlets must make money and that money comes from advertising. Advertisers pay to reach a specific target demographic and are willing to pay more for the more viewers within those characteristics that agency can provide. This is the lifeblood of any news organization (even NPR, but in a different income model). As such and to remain relevant, the business will put in place persons to adjust its programming to grab as many persons as they can in a targeted demographic. This leads to two forms of bias. Number one is the “voice” of the organization. E.g. Fox News skews right while CNN swings left. The second comes from “speed bias” where competing stations seek to break a story first. This is nothing new in the news business. However, the speed at which we disseminate information today is so rapid that it requires many organizations to break stories without all the facts and, perhaps more importantly, without thoroughly investigating the opposing view. Why would they anyway? It could alienate their core demographic (e.g. their purse).
Ultimately, this means that we are typically only getting half the story at any given time no matter how much each organization touts their “unbiased” views. The current economics of the news industry prevent that, so take a note from this old reporter. Always, and I repeat ALWAYS, get both sides of the picture before you make your judgment. For you Fox folks, that means watching some CNN and for you CNN folks. Watch some Fox news. Just like Howard James taught me, you must remain impartial. More than ever, it is up to the consumer to investigate the information being presented and cast their own final judgment with the understanding that their preferred source does contain, at least some, bias.