America has always had a tortuous relationship with the media. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” Thomas Jefferson observed. But later, he also wrote that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”

In 2020, a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll found that 81% of Americans believe the media is “critical” or “very important” to democracy. That doesn’t mean they trust the reporting.

Skepticism is especially pronounced among conservatives: Pew Research Center found that Republicans’ trust in national news organizations collapsed from 70% in 2016 to just 35% in 2021. Many cite a liberal bias, echoing certain campaign slogans.

Are their suspicions well founded? Or is something else going on here?

The following point-counterpoint was compiled by the Deseret Magazine staff.

Point: A self-evident bias

The media’s liberal bias is self-evident to conservative observers. They coddle Democrats and endorse liberal ideas but target Republican politicians and conservative values with unfair and unbalanced scrutiny. Driven by both personal beliefs and profit motive, the media seems to be taking one side and vilifying the other.  

Consider the industry’s political makeup. Journalists are four times more likely to be registered Democrats than Republicans, and multiple studies have found them more likely to donate to Democrats.

“Even reporters and editors who imagine themselves to be fair,” columnist Mike Rosen of Colorado wrote in February, “see the world through their subjective lens.”

But news is a business, and nothing sells online like outrage. So mainstream outlets lean into reliable tropes like “wicked right-wingers getting their just desserts or the plights of innocents suffering because of right-wingers’ behavior,” wrote former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt in Deseret Magazine last November. Examples include vaccine critics catching COVID-19 and ending up on ventilators or immigrant children separated from their families under the Trump administration. “The path to profitability and survival for much of the news business now relies on products that are mostly either superficial fluff or distortions that exploit and deepen our country’s worsening political alienation.”

How to inoculate yourself from fake news

Many conservatives cite the research of economists Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo — now at George Mason University and the Cato Institute, respectively — who in 2003 found evidence of liberal bias by tracking media citations of left- and right-leaning think tanks. Even moderates like Sen. Mitt Romney have had verbal missteps taken out of context and pilloried, especially during his 2012 presidential campaign.

“It just shows the level of amplification, of blowing certain things out of proportion,” says conservative commentator Evan Siegfried.

One study published in 2022 focused on 25 conservatives and found that while the group was generally hostile toward the press, “they were not primarily upset that the media get facts wrong, nor even that journalists push a liberal policy agenda,” the study’s co-authors observed in The Conversation. “Their anger was about their deeper belief that the American press blames, shames and ostracizes conservatives.” 

Counterpoint: Liberal bias is a myth

Liberal bias in the news is a myth. But reporters face very real hostility that arises from misunderstandings about the industry and misguided expectations, used as levers by political operators and even some media outlets.

Reporters aren’t autonomous actors, but part of a system populated with editors, publishers, lawyers, shareholders and advertisers. Their work is scrutinized for factual accuracy, legal liability and reach. Each story represents an investment, expected to yield certain results. A story is deemed “newsworthy” based on its relevance to society, human interest or draw for readers. Editors and producers manage the overall mix, while corporate owners determine an outlet’s market position.

That leaves little room for journalists to plant flags. A 2020 study co-authored by BYU-Idaho political science professor Matt Miles found that “journalists’ individual ideological leanings have unexpectedly little effect on the … early stage of political news generation,” where story subjects are selected. Instead, he concluded, the perception of partiality arises from readers’ own biases and disappointment when their beliefs are not confirmed. “They’re calling (stories) liberal and conservative, when really, it’s just that this story isn’t talking about the people I like in the way that I like.”

Perhaps Americans have grown accustomed to a new kind of news. Deregulation allowed outlets like MSNBC to take up partisan positions — a strategy pioneered by Fox News, a standard-bearer for claiming “liberal bias.” This may be a brand strategy, but it also shapes the audience. According to Lehigh University political science professor Anthony DiMaggio, a combination of national surveys showed that “the strongest evidence of indoctrination was observed among consumers of conservative media,” with Fox News watchers hewing to the party line more than the audiences of CNN or MSNBC.

Politicians can find such claims useful. “If you can get people to believe that your side is not biased, only the other side is biased, because they’re the ones who are wrong,” DiMaggio writes, “then you’ve won the rhetorical game.”

What’s clear is that Americans need to boost their media literacy to navigate an increasingly complex landscape, perhaps by starting with a walk on the other side.  

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.