All news reports adopt positions that are essentially political in nature (whether consciously or unconsciously), by presenting social issues through their selection of interview subjects, quotes, framing, interpretation, and commentary. Political philosophies and positions (not necessarily aligned with political parties) inform journalists’ choices in composing their reports. In this sense, the field of Journalism (like the discipline of History) is fundamentally interpretive. No reporter or columnist can escape from the interpretive nature of their practice.
News media companies and organizations inherently adopt political tendencies, since the editors (and sometimes the owners and managers) shape the selection of newsworthy events and issues, the reporting assignments, the writing and copyediting processes, the word counts of individual articles, the approval processes, the placement of articles within the print and/or online publication, the promotion and distribution of reports, and follow-up possibilities.
Unfortunately, these political positions and tendencies are often discussed simply through the lens of “biases,” which is a rather reductive and misleading notion in discussing news media.
Many organizations seek to assess “media biases,” and Ad Fontes Media has just released its annual Media Bias Chart for 2022.
The Media Bias Chart provides an interesting visualization of the news media landscape in the United States, but its organization of media positions onto a Left – Middle – Right spectrum is highly problematic. This reifies an outdated model of politics which stems from the seating of deputies within the National Assembly during the French Revolution and their affiliations with Republican, Constitutional Monarchist, and Absolute Monarchist positions. However, these left, middle, and right distinctions broke down during the course of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire.
The Left, Middle, and Right spectrum was then used to describe classical political ideologies of nineteenth-century French and European political systems: Socialism, Liberalism, and Conservatism (with Communism eventually added). However, these ideological identifications with Left, Middle, and Right did not always work well to describe political identities or party affiliations. The distinctions were later modified to describe twentieth-century ideologies (Communism, Liberalism, and Fascism), Cold War ideologies, and the United States political system.
However, in the post-Cold War world, the continued use of Left, Middle, Right political labels has been completely disrupted by ethnic, racial, gender, environmental, and other political identities that simply cannot be grafted onto older political identification schemes. Political landscapes arguably need to be completely rethought.
Further the Media Bias Chart rates media organizations in terms of Skews (Left or Right) Hyper-Partisan (Left or Right), and Most Extreme (Left or Right), instead of actually identifying the positions and party affiliations or reporting. Further, the chart imagines a Middle as being unbiased, which reinforces an unattainable ideal news reporting as being “unbiased.”
Interestingly, there seems to be a sharp divergence between understandings of news media in the United States and Europe. Americans often complain of “biased” news reporting, but have no idea of political positions or affiliations of news organizations. Citizens of European nations are often much more aware of the political positions of the news media organizations that produce news reports. The public news media in many nations have channels designated for the majority party or coalition in the national parliament, as well as for the opposition party or coalition.
Since the late eighteenth century, newspapers, news radio channels, television news programs, and internet news companies have often had direct connections with organized political parties. Indeed, throughout modern history, many news media organizations have been official arms of political parties.
So, organizations like Ad Fontes Media might usefully alter their methodologies to investigate political positioning rather than “bias” in news media in the United States. Ad Fontes Media’s current Media Bias Chart uses a generic “left versus right” spectrum, rather than examining connections with particular political positions, parties, wings of parties, or organized political groups.
Ad Fontes Media’s mission statement reads: “Ad Fontes Media, Inc. is a company founded in 2018 by Vanessa Otero, creator of the Media Bias Chart®. The mission of Ad Fontes Media is ‘to make news consumers smarter and news media better.’ We rate the news for reliability and bias to help people navigate the news landscape. Ad Fontes is Latin for ‘to the source,’ because at the heart of what Ad Fontes Media does is look at the source—analyze the very content itself—to rate it. We have created a system of news content ratings that has beneficial applications for all stakeholders in a healthy news media landscape, including consumers, educators, publishers, researchers, advertisers, and social media platforms.”
At the same time, the Ad Fontes Media company is trying to sell memberships and products to individuals, media companies, and public school systems. So, readers may wonder about its political positions and educational agendas, too.
A deeper understanding of the history of news would arguably help students and citizens develop a better understanding of modern news media and a stronger analytical framework for reading news reports more critically.
For more information on the history of news media, see:
Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge, 2 vols. (Polity Press, 2000, 2012).
Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge (Polity Press, 2015).
Asa Briggs, Peter Burke, and Espen Ytreberg, Social History of the Media, 4th ed. (Polity Press, 2020). A book description is available at Polity Press.
Brendan Dooley, ed., The Politics of Information in Early Modern Europe (Routledge, 2001).
Brendan Dooley, ed., The Dissemination of News and the Emergence of Contemporaneity in Early Modern Europe (Ashgate, 2010).
Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News (Yale, 2014).
Ad Fontes Media explains its methodology on its website.