A presumption of media bias is leading some students at Shepherd University to distrust the news they consume according to recent interviews conducted by The Picket.
“Fox news protects Republicans while CNN analyzes everything Trump does,” according to Brandyn Paine, a communications major here at Shepherd. Paine, like other students, gets most of his news from social media outlets because he doesn’t trust more mainstream sources like CNN or FOX.
A PEW research study from 2016 correlates with the opinions of students at Shepherd. It shows that only 27 percent of millennials, a demographic that makes up the majority of university students across the country, believe that the news media has a positive impact on society. The same study shows that 45 percent of millennials generally think that banks and financial institutions have a positive impact on society.
To some students at Shepherd that’s because journalists and reporters are presumed to put too much political spin and opinion in their reporting.
“I feel like people are trying to push their opinions on people too much,” said Jacob Perry, who is a freshman engineering major at Shepherd. “[The media] over exaggerates things,” he said, “and make people want to not listen to them—or they misinform people and then people believe the wrong thing.”
“There really is no unbiased news that just gets to the point and explains what happened,” Perry said.
Many Americans prefer fact-based reporting without any interpretation by the individuals responsible for collecting those facts. According to a PEW research panel in November of 2016, 59 percent of adults said they preferred no interpretation by reporters, but only the facts.
The problem seems to be that interpretation inevitably brings out the opinion of the person who is doing the reporting, says some of the students at Shepherd.
“It’s very difficult for [reporters] to make unbiased news because I believe that someone’s opinion is kind of always going to bleed through into whatever they are trying to report on,” said Roderick Affleck, a senior at Shepherd. Affleck uses unconventional methods to get his news by frequently surveying websites like Reddit.com, although some of what he reads at the popular forum does cite other websites and news sources.
Like Affleck, Paine also said he primarily uses unconventional news outlets, such as tuning into the popular YouTube sensation Phillip DeFranco. The Phillip DeFranco Show is littered with striking headlines like “The Internet is UNDER ATTACK, Net Neutrality is Dying, and What You Can Do.” According to a video posted by Charisma on Command, another popular YouTube account that has 1.2 million subscribers, DeFranco is trusted by his viewers because he “clearly delineates between the facts of a story and his own opinion.”
That level of transparency may be one way of restoring some Shepherd students’ faith in the media who agree that opinions and news are inextricably linked.
Brianna Maguire, an English major in her senior year at Shepherd, says that unbiased news is impossible. “Every time you write, you write for a perspective,” she said. “The only really unbiased news would be an actual firsthand account or a video of something as its happening that has not been filtered.”
Other students agree, such as Mike Icenhower, a Shepherd junior. “Unbiased news doesn’t exist. We all have a perception of the truth and that is based on personal experiences, which are biased,” he said.
Another student, Sarah North, a senior at Shepherd, said that while unbiased news may be possible, it’s not amenable for mainstream media outlets.
“I do believe there is unbiased news,” said North, “but that does not mean it is being projected to the public. Slightly biased news grabs the audience’s attention—which is how news broadcasters and reporters receive more interest and viewers than others.”
But in a society where loaded terms like “fake news” weigh heavy after a controversial presidential race last year, the presumption of media bias has reached a national precipice. A study done by YouGov this past July confirmed that 70 percent of Americans agree that there is political partiality in the news—and according to William Marjenhoff, a history professor at Shepherd, the buzz of “fake news” exists exclusively when politics are involved.
“It’s really all about politics,” Marjenhoff said. “I mean we don’t hear about fake news in sports or style—just in politics.”
And while The Picket purposely avoided asking politically loaded questions in its interviews with students, some responses shifted in that direction anyway whenever students mentioned fake news.
Macquire acknowledged that claims by politicians of fake news has influenced his opinions of the media.
Paine had a similar response. “The news is all polarized to one side,” he said. “Like five years ago they would report the news, now it’s all biased.” Political affiliation is usually recognized by sides. It was in 1877 when senators began moving their desks on one side or the other of the center aisle in the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol to affirm their affiliation with a political party, according to the U.S. Senate website.
“It’s very hard to talk about this issue without bringing up Trump and his references to fake news, which have complicated the issue,” Marjenhoff said.
Yet one professor at Shepherd doesn’t find the presumption of media bias surprising concerning politics.
Professor James Lewin said that the New York Times lost its credibility in the 2016 presidential campaign when it, according to Lewin, paid little attention to the campaign of Bernie Sanders and treated Republican candidates as “jokes.”
“Once credibility is lost, it is hard to restore,” he said. “[The New York Times] assumed that it was Hillary’s turn, the only question being by how much she would win.”
But American sentiments on the validity of reporting is affecting all news outlets. As Marjenhoff points out. “You know what’s really interesting about the whole fake news thing is even Rasmussen Polls, a more conservative information source, shows only 40 percent of Americans find Fox news a reliable source,” he said.
The phenomenon of fake news has led to a loss in faith for reporters and the media, according to the students The Picket interviewed.
“Too many fake news articles,” said Travis Stocksdale, a computer engineering major at Shepherd. “It’s so biased people can’t determine what’s true or not,” he said.
Hunter Weeden, a junior at Shepherd, said that the loss of faith in the media was because audiences can’t determine what is true or false.
“People think certain types of news is biased and fake,” Weeden said. “Each news item and information is influenced by perception.”
Some students, however, retain less certain outlooks. According to KeAndre Batson, a junior here at Shepherd, while most have lost faith in the media, not everyone has. Although Batson, who said he watches Fox news as a mainstream option, still recognizes the political emphasis on the news he consumes.
“[The media] glorifies different people, like Trump mostly, but anybody. Every little thing Trump does, like tweeting, is on the news,” Batson said.
The media’s emphasis, though, is a reaction by the media to Trump especially, according to Lewin. “Trump has called journalists the enemy of the people,” he said.
A loss in faith in the media makes the whole institution and the First Amendment vulnerable, Lewin said, adding he isn’t panicking. “Not that the American freedom of the press is about to descend to the level of Turkey—where the dungeons are jammed with writers and editors—or Russia, where dissident reporters are shot dead in the street by shady assassins.” As a former journalist, though, he still recognizes that journalists need to strive to be unbiased.
“As a wise old journalist once told me,” says Lewin, “there is no objective reporting, but you can be fair by presenting all sides and cutting the baloney.”
And until the baloney is trimmed away, it may be up to the audience to validate the facts in a news story according to one of the students interviewed.
“It’s up to an individual to double and triple check what outlets their news is coming from and to see if it’s actually factual, and I believe that in the past year, a lot of news has taken a huge turn, for better and worse, and a lot of it has been left up to the viewer to do their own research,” said Affleck.
That might be exactly what the media needs now, according to Marjenhoff, who recalled what Thomas Jefferson said about a free press and democracy.
“Were it left to me to decide,” he said recounting Jefferson’s words, “whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson, according to Marjenhoff, had a core belief that an educated populace was more important for a country than even a well-established government. “Newspapers and media really do have to educate us,” he said.