In my last post, I briefly mentioned the idea of the “hostile media effect” in regards to media bias. And as our favorite beauty queen-turned-politician-turned-reality tv star loves to remind us, the mainstream media is often called out by viewers across the political spectrum as untrustworthy and unfair. Is this totally deserved?
The simple answer is…not entirely. Of course, there are screw ups that lead the public to lose trust in an organization, like Brian Williams’ scandal in 2015 or CBS’s 2012 coverage of Benghazi. But mainstream (or LAMEstream, if you know what’s up) doesn’t necessarily deserve all the scrutiny it receives, thanks to the hostile media effect (HME). In a nutshell, HME refers to the phenomena of audiences perceiving a bias that doesn’t exist.
For example, a liberal student reads an article and comes away believing the article was conservative-leaning, perhaps due to their own far-left stance–even though the article in question wasn’t biased. The kicker to HME is that the bias may exist in favor of the slighted party–so in the above case, the article itself is left-leaning, yet due to HME, the liberal reader comes away believing the article is right-leaning and thus, biased.
HME isn’t a new concept but it’s certainly been exacerbated by the speed at which we produce and consumer content, thanks to social media. A number of researchers have examined HME, most notably Lee Ross, Mark Lepper and Robert Vallone studying the effect of media bias and HME in coverage of the Beirut Massacre. Researchers concluded that both pro-Israeli and pro-Arab viewers found the news coverage to be biased against them, even while watching the exact same newscasts of the massacre. (It’s an informative though lengthy read, and if you want to know about the Beirut Massacre itself, I suggest the New York Times’ The Beirut Massacre: The Four Days.) When we extrapolate perceived biases into race-related issues in America (which are still some of the most controversial issues at play), it’s easy to see how perceived and actual biases can be hard to untangle and even harder to navigate, especially as a person of color in America.
While HME does effect audiences, it is still critical to understand where bias comes into play when we report content. Next week, we’ll address some common causes of bias and dive into how language itself plays a role.