Free press needs to act like fourth estate

A free media is often the indicator of a truly free country, as the old cliché goes.

The media is the watchdog that guards the doors of democracy and civilization, and the press of yore was considered important enough to be accorded the title of the fourth estate. The practitioners of this profession were bestowed with recognition and power born of genuine respect.

But are today’s press outlets free of systemic biases, whether inadvertent or otherwise, and what bearing does the answer to this question have on our society? Though the answer seems obvious at the outset, it is instructive to analyze some recent occurrences to take into account the reasons for the presence of biases.

The first truth we must accept is that no media outlet is free of bias, and none are above the tempting tentacles of oversimplification in order to appeal to a target demographic.

Even the New York Times, the pioneering broadsheet of our times, falls prey to this. Browsing through the Times’ region-specific pages perpetuates just about every stereotype the average American reader holds about the countries and people in those parts of the world.

The Africa page, for example, is full of stories of conflict and chaos, while the page on Europe talks mostly about political and economic stories. The argument may be made that only major news stories make it to the headlines, but that does not explain the marked difference in the tone and extent of coverage.

Inadvertent bias is hard enough to spot and deal with as it is. However, when it is overt like in the case of a newspaper based in Maine, the issue takes on dangerous overtones for society at large. The Portland Press Herald was in the news last month after publishing an apology for running a picture of Muslims praying on its front page on Sept. 11, even though it happened to coincide with the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar.

In running the apology to its readers, the paper tacitly supported the abhorrent and total identification of Islam per se with the handiwork of a few terrorists. Sadly, the Press Herald is not alone in trying to pander to its clientele by parading stereotypes.

TV news media outlets make a living out of exploiting these subtle cognitive connections; far too many times, a report on violence in some far-away region is accompanied with random videos of angry mobs. The sad part, of course, is that the visuals don’t always correspond to the actual story.

The scourge of bias in the media has hit closer home in Arizona as well. Be it President Barack Obama’s convocation address and the controversy leading up to it, or the recent anti-immigration bill, news outlets have seldom dithered from an opportunity to label Arizona and reinforce all the stereotypes that the nation holds about this state and University.

The media is our one great hope when the government’s mechanisms fail in protecting those values we hold dear as civilized beings. It is time we rid the platform of the scourge of stereotyping and bias by making wiser choices to appease our news-fix.

Send discovered media bias to kartikt@asu.edu


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