By Karine Vann for Boston Compass (#127)
September 30, 2020
This month, I’m continuing on the theme of media literacy to help readers navigate beyond the binary of corporate media. Last month, I offered a resource (the website AllSides.com) to help readers navigate bias in the news they consume. Everything you read has some level of bias (can you guess what mine is???). I want to reinforce that just having a bias—or a guiding philosophy to your work—is not a bad thing. It’s sometimes even a healthy part of a free press. But corporate media outlets (and even some smaller outlets I’ve seen) live and die by their ideological biases that are often manufactured for political or financial gain—think: Fox News (far right) versus CNN (which, honestly, pretends it’s far left, but is pretty much moderate for the rest of the world on economic issues).
The way bias is weaponized by these outlets turns what should be a far more natural part of a national conversation into a divisive political tool. It’s successful because news consumers have slowly been conditioned to believe bias doesn’t exist, as long as what they’re reading is the side they agree with. Because they fail to recognize bias, consumers of news may overlook important viewpoints missing from the coverage. Even more nefarious, outlets try to justify these omissions by convincing us the other side is wrong, totally immoral, and not worth even our consideration. And sometimes it is! Other times, however, you may be surprised by the sheer mundanity of what’s been censored.
So this month, I want to talk about one particular kind of bias that is becoming increasingly evident to me, and how listeners can find ways around it. In his book Hate, Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi documents an important transition in media. In the last several decades, reporting went from being a working class profession to one in which less than 10% of the workforce comes from working class backgrounds. He writes: “The internet accelerated the class divide... In the digital age, it made more sense to design coverage for a sliver of upper class readers across the country, who could afford subscriptions and responded to ads, than the whole bulk of readers in a geographic area around Boston, New York, Washington or LA. Because news organizations were targeting those audiences, it made sense to pick reporters who came from those ranks, as well.”
As someone who splits their time between farming/food retail and journalism, I’ve felt this disconnect for a while. The absence of working class voices in our news—or when it is present, its distortion to fit an elitist agenda—is deepening at an alarming pace. Unfortunately, and as a progressive I hate to say this, this phenomenon is more common on the left than it is on the right for reasons you can find documented in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? The growing divide between those who write the news and those who live it has become particularly unbearable in the age of Covid-19, as journalists, from the comfort of their homes, continue to day dream articles piling on endless layers of PPE and invasive technology into every crevice of our lives without fully reckoning with the implications.
In a recent article for National Geographic, one such writer gleefully described the hazmat suits airline attendants might soon have to wear as “flashy” and “medical chic,” as well as the cavalier description of an airport in Hong Kong that plans to require visitors and airport workers to enter a “negative pressure pod" that "performs a 40-second treatment with 'nano needles,' photocatalyst technology, and a sanitizing spray." Is that what it will take to keep us safe from Covid-19? The answer to that question didn’t seem to matter as much as the star power of the protocols being referenced, like the creeping facial recognition and tracking technologies. Shouldn’t it concern our reporters what this frightening, new world will feel like for the people actually working in those institutions, as well as the consumers who must interact with it daily? These frontline jobs were hard before the PPE. It is a fact that they are harder now, but pay the same as before. You’d think this journalist, a fashion and style writer who in all likelihood wrote this article in her pajamas, might consider reaching out to those at the frontlines, but instead, the only sources referenced were university professors, CEOs for the tech companies, and airline companies PR teams. A full court press omission of the working class perspective is not only incredibly uncommon, it’s also dangerously subtle to detect for the average reader. So don’t fall for it. Ask questions. Demand answers.
— Karine Vann