How Travel Has Helped Me Understand Media Bias

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Since the election of Trump, the terms “fake news” and “media bias” have been thrown around a lot. Supposedly, only a few years ago we lived in a world where newspapers were impartial and social media was as innocuous as the latest simulated farming game. (Can you believe those apps were actually designed to collect user information?)

Having lived for years in South America, I’ve been exposed to more than my fair share of partisan punditry and absurdly false news reports. One particular tall tale alleges that the U.S. has a secret plan to invade the Tri-border region between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. What for might you ask? Why to steal the water. Isn’t it obvious?

In most countries, all this passes as a matter of course; only Americans seem to be particularly obsessed with the idea of a neutral media. Yet, media bias has been a mainstay of U.S. politics since the beginning. Just a few years after the birth of the country, the Connecticut Courant warned that a Thomas Jefferson administration would usher in an era where “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.”

A Federalist cartoon showing Jefferson attempting to burn the U.S. Constitution on the altar of despotism

Nor were newspapers above printing fake news. During the same election, Jefferson was declared dead in the mainstream press for several days with dueling editorials debating whether or not he had been assassinated. Jefferson, of course, won the election, and, as far as we know, was not America’s first zombie President.

Traveling, though, has opened my eyes to something far more dangerous than the current hysteria over “fake news” and that is the inability of most people to realize that almost all news is misleading on some level. The idea of an impartial media is, frankly, ridiculous. In fact, communication, in general, is bias because it is impossible to have perfect knowledge of any given event; it’s not just what is being communicated but what is being left out. Journalists are storytellers, and all stories have a point of view.

Take the famous 1968 photo of Nguyễn Văn Lém’s execution by South Vietnamese General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan for instance. The picture shares with the viewer the brutal nature of the war in Vietnam. It strikes an emotional cord that immediately makes us sympathize with the helpless captive. However, if we leave the photo aside and simply stick to the facts that Nguyễn Văn Lém was a member of the Vietcong and summarily executed after murdering Nguyễn Ngọc Loan’s wife and six children, we may arrive at a very different conclusion. Neither way of reporting is inaccurate, but both have very different narrative outcomes.

The execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém was an iconic photograph of the Vietnam War, but it is not the full story

Nguyễn Văn Lém is an extreme case of a phenomenon that we are subject to on a daily basis. Minor editorial decisions, whether they are the photos included in a piece or the words that appear in the headline, influence how we perceive the news. It is hard to discern how subtle differences can change a narrative; often, even the journalists writing the stories are unaware of their own biases seeping on to the pages like spilled ink. But just the way we present the “facts” can polarize a story.

The congressional report on the 2012 attack against U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya is a prime example. On June 29, 2016, the Washington Post and the New York Times reported essentially the same facts but with very different headlines and tone. “Republicans on Benghazi panel rip U.S. response” read the Post, while the Times settled for “Benghazi panel finds no misdeeds by Clinton.” Both headlines are, in truth, correct: Republicans were highly critical of the US response to Benghazi, but, in the end, the panel did not find that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had engaged in any wrongdoing. However, the first title emphasizes the administration’s ineptitude while the second stresses the panel’s exoneration of Clinton.

We need to acknowledge that all media is bias and that there is nothing wrong with that. What is problematic is our inability to discern those biases or, even worse, accepting certain media sources as inherently impartial. There is no easy solution to this problem. Today’s media environment is more complicated than ever. It requires us to do the hard work of reading multiple sources, exposing ourselves to different perspectives (some of which may not be the most pleasant) and then reconciling them.

In this regard, travel has been extremely beneficial. Not only does travel force one to listen to different viewpoints, but it also introduces us to alternative media sources that we may have never thought of perusing. By reading the same news story in several different papers from around the globe, one begins to get a sense of the biases as well as the common themes that transcend politics, nations, and cultures. Being able to grasp a story from multiple angles may not provide the “truth,” but it’s not a bad place to start.

Where do you get your news?  Let me know in the comment section!

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2 thoughts on “How Travel Has Helped Me Understand Media Bias”

  1. Great insight. And selection of which news articles to publish is hugely important. People think the crime rate is rising because TV news features bloody stories. The stories themselves are accurate, but the news selection constitutes bias.

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