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Is Media Biased?

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A reader wants to know how far media—and sports media in particular—leans. We discuss.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Press Conference Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

As we start this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, I’d like to remind you that the deadline for donating tickets for underprivileged youth and children to see the Portland Trail Blazers face the Philadelphia 76’ers is this Friday. We need your help providing tickets for hundreds and hundreds of kids we’ve got slated to go. Please click through this link to read about the project and donate.

Now on to the question of the day!

Dave,

This seems to be a matter for increasing discussion and I can understand if you do not want to tackle it but I thought I would ask. I noticed in a post about Sheed [this report about comments from Rasheed Wallace a few days ago] that people were complaining about the “biased” media. This is obviously not the only place they are saying this. From your perspective would you say that the media is biased? If so in what ways or why not? I’m ok with anything you want to call media.

Paul

It’s an interesting question, fraught with peril. I’ll address with with a couple caveats:

  1. This is analysis/opinion, not an exposé.
  2. I feel comfortable talking about the media in general but this site does not engage in the practice of calling out fellow media members. We’ll argue all day with their assertions and conclusions about basketball but ad hominem accusation—including calling their motives and credibility into doubt—is not something we do or encourage.

So, in general terms, is media biased? Of course. Every system is in one way or another. But it’s not biased in the ways people think or accuse. Its leanings are far more systemic than agenda-driven or personal.

The first, and most obvious, bias of media is valuing the unusual and spectacular. The old saw, “Dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is” remains a staple of the business. In real life, “dog bites man” is a billion times more likely to occur. Few things we hear reported are untrue. That does not mean that those stories give a clear view of reality, individually or in aggregate. Relying on media alone will give a distorted perspective as the rare and sensational becomes commonplace and definitive.

Media also tends to value thin slices over complete perspectives. I’ve been on radio and cited among various media sources for Trail Blazers analysis mores time than I could count. Twice in my life have I found myself more or less the center subject of an interview. Both times I experienced an interview technique I call “shotgunning”, though I don’t know the proper term for it, or even if there is one. Basically the interviewer asks you a dozen questions to warm you up and get you talking freely, but you can kind of tell the one question that’s important to them and the two sentences out of a 25-minute answer session they’re actually going to use. They’ll claim space restrictions and the right to determine the story for themselves as neutral parties—both of which have some validity—but sometimes it’s hard to keep from grimacing when trying to swallow that “neutral” part. Stories come out with seven paragraphs following the same line when you know that you, personally, said several things that don’t fit the narrative. Somehow those contrary views didn’t make it into print. Again, what they present is not untrue, but it’s a facet of reality rather than the complete story.

Obviously it’d be easy for media outlets to manipulate the power to control the process into outright bias. Some do. But the majority of them aren’t beholden to much more than finding a “good/unique” story and creating a cohesive narrative out of it. That’s slanted, but not in a sinister way. Accusations to the contrary—particularly accusations that rely on a monolithic view of the institution—are patently false.

Sports journalism tends to be its own animal. Sports are, by nature, unpredictable. Each game brings an opportunity to find something unique. The audience is presumed to already be excited about the subject matter so there’s more acceptance/marketability of relatively “mundane” reports. You’d never read, “Joey, Trader Joe’s Associate, Doing Just Fine,” or, “After Struggling, Joey Did a Good Job Last Night!” Replace Joey with Noah Vonleh and you’ve got something at least marginally printable.

Athletes, coaches, and executives are considered experts in their fields. While sports reporters still dig for the juicy questions and angles in interviews, they’re more likely to print bigger slices of the interviewee’s response...anywhere from complete, complex sentences in the paper to airing and posting entire interview sessions online. With multiple outlets interviewing the same subjects and omnipresent agents to clarify miscommunication, attempts at “thin slice” write-ups get thickened quickly.

Sports journalism has its own biases though. Sources are not just fonts of information, they’re status symbols and lifelines. The pool is limited; there are always more people wanting to interview than there are significant interviewees available. Who you talk to determines your prestige. Interviewees also control access. If they say they’re not talking to you, you cannot force them. If they revoke your credentials, you’re not even allowed to be in the same area of the building with them anymore. Since media defines itself by so heavily by access—near exclusively, in some cases—the person interviewed holds the power. The bias we saw with the common interview gets reversed: the subject now gets to help control and define the story.

As with the more general biases, this one should not be overblown. I’m not aware of a single sports media person who would fabricate a story or even sit on one for long if it broke new ground. But how things get said day-to-day—sometimes including timing of stories—is influenced as much by the internal environment as the needs of the media consumer. Staying on the good side of the subject is just as critical as reporting to the reader, sometimes more so.

At no point should we lose sight that media, as an institution, is critical to our society. Biases can be discussed and compensated for. Lack of access and independent storytellers would be disastrous. Without the media we’re blind to anything beyond an arm’s reach. It’s possible to disagree with a story or conclusion without denouncing the need for stories to be told and conclusions to be drawn.

Media cannot be replaced; it should be respected. It is no purer or fouler than any other institution. It should be consumed with balance and the realization that a story is not always the story. Still, those stories are generally worth reading. Media reports provide a valuable platform for discussion and thought; they’re just a poor replacement for them.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!