Furthering The Story: Calling Out Bias

In the wake of Election Day’s aftermath and the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, many news organizations scrambled to push out information across all their platforms regarding the now president-elect of the U.S. and his vice presidential running mate. Twitter was positively alight with activity on election night and the subsequent day, as many reporters analyzed the results and how Trump secured such a dominant command of the electoral college vote. Other networks chose to in addition to that results coverage profile the victorious candidates.

One such organization was CBS News, who published a tweet on November 10 (2 days after the election) about Mike Pence. The tweet simply read “Before Mike Pence officially takes office, here are some things to know about the vice president-elect,” and then included a short 60 second video clip featuring images and textual facts about the Indiana Governor. The premise behind the clip was that it would provide readers with all the information they needed to know about their newly elected VP “…in under one minute.”

The clip started out innocuously enough, highlighting Pence’s political career thus far: elected governor of Indiana in 2013, served in the House for 12 years prior to that and unsuccessfully ran for House Minority Leader in 2006. But at the 0:22 mark the coverage started to take a not so subtle shift:


The video proceeded to outline all the essentially anti-liberal (and in many cases anti-civil rights) acts Pence had done as governor: fighting against Medicare, No Child Left Behind, gays in the military, same-sex marriage and civil unions…


The rest of the video continued on in that vein, detailing such moves as trying to defund Planned Parenthood, and passing the highly controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act which brought Indiana into national attention for its anti-gay allowances (i.e. denying a gay couple service in a restaurant establishment). The only other totally nonpartisan fact it provided was at the very end: that Pence had hosted his own radio show for a while.

I understand that with a time constraint of 60 seconds, it could prove hard to include all the salient facts of Pence’s long political career in video form. I also believe that CBS did not intentionally or maliciously try to depict Pence as a career politician incapable of doing much besides trying to tear down liberal initiatives (i.e. legalized gay marriage). But to me (and to many people who responded to the tweet) that was exactly how it came across, depicting Pence as a very negative figure solely obsessed with taking away minority rights. Even including the explainer phrase at the beginning “Mike Pence is a staunch conservative” doesn’t really help the situation at all. I don’t know very much about Pence, but I am sure that his entire career does not consist of only gay-bashing and immigrant-hating legislation.

Many Twitter users wasted no time in issuing criticisms for the obvious liberal bias of the video:




Some of the comments were obviously pro-Trump, others not so much – but they could all unite over the fact that the video clearly did not do a very good job of balanced reporting. In hopes of getting an understanding as to why CBS would put out a video like this, I responded to the tweet:



In this situation, it seems that in the pursuit of telling the truth about our controversial newly elected vice president, CBS neglected to remain objective (possibly they were still shell shocked about the results?). The video riled up both liberals and conservatives, which is as good an indication as any that it truly presented bias on the part of the network.

While I did not receive a response directly from CBS News (they did not respond to any of the Twitter comments), I noticed that by the time I posted this assignment my tweet had received 40 views and 13 engagements (people clicking on it to further view what I was tweeting about) which is heartening in a way because it shows that comments do make a difference if not to the reporters at least to the audience viewing this video.

However, determined to hopefully facilitate some sort of response, I went directly to the contact page for CBS News and was directed to an online form where I could submit comments and feedback:


Here is what I wrote to them:

“My inquiry is in regards to a tweet which was posted to the CBS News Twitter account on Nov. 10. Here is the link to the tweet: https://twitter.com/CBSNews/status/796910444812337152
As you might see from the comments section of the tweet, a lot of viewers including myself appreciated the attempt to provide a concise, 60-second briefing on vice president-elect Mike Pence. Yet any reasonable viewer could also interpret the digital piece to appear slightly biased against Pence, and to have a slight liberal edge to it. I understand you may get hundreds of comments about your content, but I was hoping to simply gain some insight from the digital/social media producers involved with the production of this video as to what their line of thinking was in the making of this video and if they considered how this video would be received by both sides of the political spectrum.”

The confirmation page assured me that my comment would be read, but also warned that a “personal response” would not always be possible:


This is not wholly surprising with a major news organization. I also sent an email voicing a similar request to their general email address provided online, evening@cbsnews.com. While I did not get a response from either avenues, I would hope that my comments might in the future influence how they go about producing digital content for their social media websites.


Northeastern University Election Post-Mortem brings up intriguing ethical issue

Today Northeastern University’s school of journalism held a post-mortem discussion of the 2016 presidential election, discussing Donald Trump’s unexpected assumption of the presidency as well as how the media helped contribute to his rise. Many different themes were discussed, including the extensive media coverage of every Trump and Clinton scandal, sexism against Clinton, lack of in-depth reporting and of course media bias. On that last point, Professor Dan Kennedy brought up an interesting issue which we have discussed before in our ethics class, about the notion of false equivalency.

The idea of false equivalency (false balance) is that the press, in an attempt to seem 100 percent fair and balanced, will attempt to equally report on every issue or in this case both candidates, to show that they have no bias towards either side. The problem with this method is that it causes journalists to give smaller or less important stories more weight just so they can provide equal coverage. Consider the endless media cycle that happened when Clinton stumbled and fainted at the 9/11 memorial in New York back in September. It was a simple stumble but the media was required to speculate for days on end about possible health issues, because they would do the same for a Trump scandal.

It diminishes the integrity of journalism to an extent by attributing a false sense of newsworthiness to a story which under normal circumstances the public would not typically deem as important. Whether this practice actually had a significant effect on the outcome of the election cannot be quantified, but it stands to reason that there was probably at least some influence involved. It was an ethical angle of this election that I had not even considered before, but it’s something I will certainly think deeply about in the days to come.