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Believing in, or debunking, media partisanship

It happened again this past week. In the recently released Rolling Stone issue, President Obama critiqued Fox News.

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Natalie (Talia) Stroud is assistant professor of communication studies and assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. She studies the media’s role in shaping people’s political attitudes and behaviors. Her forthcoming book, “Niche News” (Oxford University Press, 2011) explores the causes, consequences and prevalence of partisan selective exposure, and the preference for like-minded political information.

It happened again this past week. In the recently released Rolling Stone issue, President Obama critiqued Fox News.

To be fair, the Rolling Stone interviewer seemed to be begging for a partisan response. “What do you think of Fox News?” the Rolling Stone interviewer asked. “Do you think it’s a good institution for America and for democracy?” Rolling Stone readers are told that after a laugh, President Obama took the bait. He equated Fox News with William Randolph Hearst, the partisan publishing magnate from the turn of the 20th century. He pointedly voiced his disagreement with the point of view expressed by Fox News. And he derided the network’s point of view as “ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.”

This isn’t the first time Obama has singled out a media outlet for partisan reporting, nor is he the only political figure to question media reporting practices — far from it.

Rather, this interview is part of a string of political accusations about bias in the media made both by the political left and by the political right. These critiques have a fairly predictable pattern — political figures point to hostile biases but generally seem oblivious to any bias that might ultimately be in their favor. At first, this may seem to be nothing more than a smart political strategy — why would you ever point out the shortcomings of your media friends? These are the outlets that are helping your cause. Yet politicians are not alone. Citizens also have a keen eye for identifying reportage that challenges their political viewpoint, but favorable coverage can seem perfectly reasonable and, dare I say, unbiased. When it comes to assessing media bias, we’re frankly not so good at it.

But surely some citizens are better at seeing partisan biases where they exist, irrespective of whether the bias is congenial or not. Surely there are those among us who can rise above their partisan inclinations and consistently call out “Bias!” whenever it appears. As an educator, I thought that knowledge and education would be the key. I figured that those possessing a store of political knowledge would be better equipped to carefully scrutinize media reports. Ah, if only. Instead, I have found precisely the opposite in my research. Politically knowledgeable Democrats gulp at the bias on Fox News while politically knowledgeable Republicans gasp at the bias on MSNBC. Partisans with a strong background in politics are even more divided in their assessments of media bias.

People aren’t always impervious to like-minded biases. Some media programs are so overt in their leanings that most everyone can identify the bias. But outlets with partisan sentiments are regularly viewed more critically by the opposition than by the like-minded. And by all indications, the knowledgeable are no better off at shedding their partisan outlooks. These findings present a challenge — how can we help citizens and political figures to see bias in all of its forms? Truth be told, I don’t know the answer, but I look forward to continuing my search to find out.

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