How Media Myths Affect News Coverage Perception

A photo of a TV news reporter preparing to talk into a camera.
••• DreamPictures / Getty Images

People in news media often come under attack for shoddy reporting, political bias or for promoting stories that fail to live up to the hype. While mistakes sometimes happen, common media myths can usually be struck down once all the facts are considered.

Reporters and Their Bosses Are Liberals

Reporters are sometimes accused of having a liberal media bias. The fact is, reporters usually reflect the communities in which they work. They are taxpayers, parents, and homeowners like everyone else. Media executives are confronted with the same issues as those in other industries -- managing tight budgets, stockholders' expectations and coping with economic forces beyond their control.

News reporters do gravitate toward stories about change because change equals news. So when an elected leader of either political party proposes an overhaul of the system, that makes headlines. Someone else who supports the status quo will likely not get coverage. That is not a case of liberal bias. Conservatives who want to scrap the U.S. tax code would draw coverage, just as those who backed universal health care.

All News Coverage Has an Unethical Political Bias

Some of the cable news networks have become known for covering news with a political slant. Fox News Channel is widely seen as being conservative, while rival MSNBC is positioning itself on the other end of the spectrum.

There is nothing unethical about covering news from a political viewpoint, as long as the viewers are aware of that fact. Journalism ethics are breached when an attempt is made to hide this motivation from the audience. While the recent focus has been on television news coverage, newspapers have taken editorial positions for generations. The political positions on the editorial page don't hinder accurate reporting of the bank robbery on the front page.

Viewers should make a distinction between a news broadcast and news commentary. Commentators such as Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow are usually free to talk about their opinions, but their shows aren't considered straight news programming.

Reporters Don't Tell the Whole Story

Sometimes the whole story is impossible to get. There are still unanswered questions about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which brought many changes to news coverage, but that shouldn't prevent a reporter from having a story printed or broadcast about what is known at the time. News users expect immediate information.

In breaking news situations, some information turns out to be incorrect. That is an unfortunate byproduct of producing live coverage as events are unfolding. Viewers see raw information that comes from a variety of sources -- eyewitnesses can be wrong, investigations can be revised to include newly-found facts and emergency workers can sometimes not provide a clear picture of what's happening in a crisis.

Reporters are often accused of only telling one side of a story. That happens when the people involved on the other side refuse to talk. A reporter must pursue getting the other side, but once the attempt is made, she can usually go ahead with the side that she has.

Think back to the Watergate scandal. If the Nixon Administration could have killed the story by simply refusing to talk, the nation would've never known what was happening inside the White House. The Washington Post was correct in presenting a well-researched, one-sided story based on information from the source called "Deep Throat" that was proven to be the truth.

Reporters Sensationalize the Facts

A newspaper headline which reads "Tempers Flare at City Council" is going to attract more readers than one that says "City Council Holds Its Regular Meeting". It's not sensationalism to accurately report the emotion involved in a story.

Where reporters sometimes go overboard is making the emotional hook the centerpiece of the story. Facts are quickly replaced by the most flowery adjectives that can be found in a Thesaurus.

Television is the usual culprit. Why it's widely known that television reaches the head through the heart, reporters leap to include the crying family members of a murder victim in their story. While their pain may be uncomfortable to watch, the alternative is a cold, sterile story about crime statistics that don't show the heartbreak that violence has on families.

Stories Are Called "Exclusive" When They're Not

Here's a typical scenario -- the president offers a one-on-one interview to ABC, CBS, and NBC. Each network will then tout its "exclusive" interview, even though the president sat down with all three.

It becomes a question of semantics whether these interviews are exclusive. CBS may have asked pointed questions about foreign policy that the other networks forgot to do. They may have gotten answers about education and health care instead.

In a perfect world, the networks would sit down and each take a topic with the president, then present their interviews together so that viewers could watch one network each night to get different information. In a competitive environment like network news, that will likely never happen.

Stories Fail to Live up to the Hype

Whether you're watching a local TV affiliate or a broadcast network, the reporting and promotion of news stories usually involve two different departments. A reporter will tell the promotion department the basic facts of the story, while the promotion producers create topical advertisements designed to get people to watch.

When the communication between the departments breaks down, the result can easily be a promo that doesn't accurately match the story. Viewers will be lured into watching a newscast to see a blockbuster report, only to be disappointed by the lackluster story they see.

Every news outlet has been burned by this problem, but if it happens too often, viewers will become wise to the carnival-barker promotion and ignore it.

Producing news quickly and accurately isn't easy. Mistakes happen on the air, online and in print. But media myths concerning bias and ethical lapses are usually just that -- myths, that aren't supported by the facts.