Over the past 15 years, as newspaper circulation has declined, more and more people are turning to advocacy journalism via websites, talk radio, cable TV, and blogs to get their news. The problem is that many of these blogs and websites are biased, have an agenda, don't do much fact checking, aren't edited, and aren't held accountable when they get facts wrong. TV networks like MSNBC and FOX News and talk radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have a clearly biased agenda. Yet, many people rely on advocacy journalism as their main source of news.
Perhaps most importantly, advocacy journalism is polarizing our country.
A new Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll indicates that Americans are more polarized politically than ever.
The study states:
"Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines - and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive - than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process."
As reported by Andrew Beaujon of Poynter.org on June 10, a newly released survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institute on religion, values, and immigration reform revealed that "people's media choices have a strong effect on their beliefs." The study stated that, "Only 42% of Republicans who most trust Fox News to provide accurate information about politics and current events support a path to citizenship, compared to 60% of Republicans who most trust other news sources."
Advocacy journalists do not set out to inform; they set out to advance an agenda, whether it be conservative or liberal. While FOX News and conservative talk radio show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the worst offenders, liberal television hosts like Al Sharpton and Rachel Maddow also fall into this category. They are all giving their opinion and reporting news with a goal and a biased agenda.
Every semester, I give my journalism students an exercise in which they have to watch and analyze three different news shows. One is a FOX News program, such as Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, or Mike Huckabee; another is an MSNBC program such as Al Sharpton, Rachel Maddow, or Chris Matthews; the third is one of the network news programs on ABC, NBC, or CBS. The point of the assignment is to show the students how bias can affect news coverage. For instance, FOX News' coverage of a tea party rally will attempt to portray happy, flag waving, patriotic people speaking out against their government; the MSNBC coverage will focus on the racist signs and comments from the crowd such as "Obama, go back to Kenya" and showing Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose in order to expose the racist element of the crowd; meanwhile, the national network coverage of ABC, NBC, and CBS tends to be much more objective, balanced, and show elements of both. To my surprise and satisfaction, most of my students prefer the straightforward objective journalism, and many are repulsed by advocacy journalism.
Despite conservatives' claims that the mainstream media is liberally biased, the mainstream media does a much better job of being fair and balanced than FOX News or MSNBC. You'll never hear NBC's Brian Williams call President Bush a moron or President Obama a socialist.
In light of the explosion of media outlets ranging from cable news outlets, talk radio, blogs, and websites, we need to be more savvy news consumers. As I tell my journalism students, it's important to consider the source of the information before we make our judgments. We need to stop elevating advocacy journalists as credible news sources. In some cases, advocacy journalists might be giving their audience accurate facts, however, in many cases, they will slant the facts and present them in a manner that advances their argument or agenda. There's nothing wrong with that. Their shows are like video editorial/op-eds. Such programs have value in rallying their base audience, presenting information and arguments in an entertaining manner, and giving them talking points when arguing with family and friends.
However, if our country is ever to get out of its current polarized rut, our media habits need to change. People need to get their news from a wide range of sources and go beyond their own echo chambers to get various perspectives on the news. They need news that they can rely on.