Friday, October 31, 2003

Behind the Screen

It is Tuesday night, and like many people in Chapel Hill and across the nation, Justin Morrow is doing the same thing he does nearly every weekday at 7 p.m. He is watching the news on television. Sitting in a soft, brown chair in his livingroom, he grabs the remote and turns on CNN.

“Some of the men and women now battling the California wildfires are calling it war ... right now 15 major wildfires are raging across California ... 1,500 homes have now been destroyed.”

Those words came from Anderson Cooper, who hosts “Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees,” as a photo of a burning house appears on the screen. That photo appeared on two other channels during the next half hour on Morrow’s television.

“I think I’ve seen this story 15 times today and it hasn’t gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better,” said Morrow, a senior UNC-CH business major.

A few minutes later Cooper says, “... a major suicide bombing. The U.S. military officials say the attack bared the mark of foreign terrorists. Today in Washington, the president spoke about the violence ....”

Morrow interjects, “Every day they repeat about Iraq. It’s always foreign terrorists ....”

While most news stations report on the wildfires in California or soldiers in Iraq, no two stations report on it exactly the same. Still, many viewers like Morrow say the news on television overall is bias and sometimes in negative ways. Is television news bias? Are certain shows too liberal or too conservative? Is journalistic integrity sometimes being compromised?

“Sure there is bias,” said Charles Tuggle, an associate professor in UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication who oversees the University’s weekly television newscast, “Carolina Week.” “It’s in some places more than others. There’s no way around it.”

Tuggle says he tries to help students to minimize bias and avoid a conflict of interest. For example, he said a student involved in the Greek system would never be allowed to do a story on the Greek system.

While many “Carolina Week” reporters say they strive for objectivity, some news stations have a noticeable ideological preference. Sudhir Kumar, who graduated from UNC-CH last year and worked with Tuggle, said ever since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a “huge conservative shift” in television news. Kumar cited Fox News and MSNBC as news channels that support conservative and republican ideas. He said CNN is becoming more conservative.

Other people like Katie Coleman, a UNC-CH senior, said television news is becoming more liberal. She said the media has a trend of reporting on liberal issues, like protesters of the Iraq War.

Is there something wrong with having a majority of television shows bias one way or another? Some people think there are so many channels to choose from that it gives a viewer plenty of options. Others, like Kumar, think all the shows have become homogeneous.

“It’s a huge problem for America because we live in a democracy where there should be a free exchange of thoughts in every direction,” said Kumar, who claims no ideological preference. “When everything becomes bias, it’s like a dictatorship where you only get one view on everything and you don’t understand the full nature of what’s right and what’s wrong. You get no criticism of that one view either. There’s no criticism of government. You got to have that.”

Americans seem to be divided about bias on television news, in particular intentional bias. Two Gallup Polls that were conducted from July 11, 2003 to July 16, 2003, demonstrated a sample of how more than 1,000 Americans that were interviewed by telephone felt about:

Hosts of cable news shows having strong opinions about politics. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?

Good thing ... 50 percent
Bad thing ... 38 percent
Neither ... 6 percent
Don’t know/ refused ... 6 percent

Reporters and news people having background as advisors to political
candidates and office holders. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?
Good thing ... 44 percent
Bad thing ... 42 percent
Neither ... 7 percent
Don’t know/ refused ... 7 percent

As Morrow changed the channel to Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC, Matthews says according to a recent poll, President George Bush’s approval rating has declined among independent voters while Americans are saying the economy is getting better for the first time in 16 months.

Matthews introduces his guest, Ralph Reed, as “one of the smartest people in politics.” Reed was a campaign strategist in the Southeast for President Bush for the 2000 election.

“I think all the president is asking and all the American people are asking is that the total story be told,” Reed said when questioned about American soldiers that have died in Iraq. “And the total story is Iraq is on its way to a free and a democratizing country ....”

“I don’t believe it for a bit,” Morrow said.

Perhaps Morrow is skeptical because the total story cannot always be told in a single news show. Morrow also said that television news, like other sources of media, is driven primarily by ratings – the more viewers watch, the higher a show’s rating.

“Because we live in an economy that is capitalistic, every business has a fundamental goal, and that is to be profitable,” said Zephyr Taylor, a UNC-CH economics graduate. “And profitability is based on demand. And demand is based on preferences. That’s what it all comes down to. People have preferences for certain types of things. Is the media bias? The media is partial toward what people want to see in a light that is interesting.”

Brent Tanner, a UNC-CH political science major, said liberal bias is more common than conservative bias in the media, which is increasing shows’ ratings. He said sometimes the truth is stretched by these stations because they distort the truth to back their stance, but he also said having a bias media can give a viewer a more thorough report about an issue and can motivate viewers to take an active role on certain issues.

Some people see fewer benefits than Tanner from watching news on television. After turning off the television with a sign of angst on his face, Morrow explained why he didn’t want to watch any more news that night.

“Instead of making a solid argument, I’m seeing a lot of negative journalism,” he said. “They’ll take one issue and say it’s too liberal or too conservative, and I tend to think the average American doesn’t have any clue what they are talking about ... I think the common thread in all these shows is the personality behind these shows has become more important than what they are saying.”