President Bush recently made headlines when he was photographed walking to his helicopter carrying a copy of Bernard Goldberg’s best-seller “Bias”. That book does an excellent job of exposing the liberal slant often seen in the national media.
But there’s another, more insidious form of bias: The invisible bias of the story that isn’t covered.
For example, consider the debate over stem cell research. In a nationally televised speech last Aug. 9, President Bush announced the U.S. would severely limit research on stem cells obtained from embryos. Only cells from 60 already developed stem cell lines can be used.
The New York Times featured several front page stories the next day, and editorialized against the President’s decision: “By limiting the federal role so severely, Mr. Bush will hamper the government's ability to spur this important new area of medical research. Scientists hope to be able to coax stem cells to evolve into replicas of cells needed to repair diseased or damaged tissue. To get the stem cells, the scientists must extract them from blastocysts -- early-stage embryos, just a few days old.”
Note that one word – must – in the final sentence. The method mentioned may be the only one that will yield embryonic stem cells. But is it really the only way to obtain promising cells for research? No.
As Wesley J. Smith reported in National Review Online on Jan. 28, scientists at the University of Minnesota have discovered an adult cell found in bone marrow that has many of the same traits that embryonic stem cells do. These adult cells also seem to be malleable enough to be grown into bone, muscle, cartilage and other cells. These cells could solve the major problem facing stem cell researchers: opposition by pro-life supporters who believe it’s wrong to destroy an embryo – even one that’s only days old – in order to obtain stem cells.
But as Smith reported, this seeming breakthrough enjoyed only limited coverage in the Times. Its single news story ran on page A-14, and didn’t include many important details about the procedure.
Coverage was even more limited at the Washington Post, which mentioned the adult cells only as part of a story about the U.S. Senate’s debate over human cloning. In contrast, the President’s decision about stem cells back in August had drawn three front page stories.
Why the sparse coverage? Smith thinks it’s partly because reporters and editors tend to see the stem cell issue through the prism of abortion – meaning they favor embryonic research in part because they think that opposing embryonic research would put them in the same camp as those who oppose abortion.
The Wall Street Journal’s online service, OpinionJournal.com, is keeping tabs on another topic that exposes the media’s hidden bias. On Oct. 31, 2000 -- just days before the presidential election -- Mark Helprin warned: “If George W. Bush becomes president, the armies of the homeless, hundreds of thousands strong, will once again be used to illustrate the opposition's arguments about welfare, the economy, and taxation.”
Now, OpinionJournal.com has a running feature called “Homelessness Rediscovery Watch”. It keeps track of newspaper and television stories featuring homelessness.
Some recent entries include: “’Homelessness in NYC: Numbers Rise Again’--WABC-TV, Feb. 12, 2002”. “’Homelessness Here Has Gone Up 69 Pct., Says Advocacy Group’--headline, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 23, 2002”. And “More people used publicly funded services for the homeless in the District [of Columbia] last year than in any year since 1997, according to a report released yesterday that lends support to advocates, service providers and homeless people who say the need for services is growing.’--Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2002”.
The bias here isn’t in the fact that the homeless are being covered. It’s in how often they’re being covered. In a groundbreaking study several years ago, the Media Research Center determined that homelessness was given much greater coverage during Republican presidential administrations.
MRC tracked national television newscasts, and found that during George H.W. Bush’s term, there were 44 homelessness stories in 1989, 71 in 1990, 54 in 1991 and 43 in 1992. Then, stories on America's homeless plunged to 35 in 1993, 32 in 1994, nine in 1995, eight in 1996, ten in 1997, and only four in 1998.
Of course, a rising tide lifts all boats, and certainly the economy improved throughout the 90’s. However, any reporter looking to do a story on the homeless can do one at any time; there are always homeless folks, no matter how strong the economy is. The fact is, the mainstream media chose not to do very many homelessness stories during the Clinton administration.
These examples are just two reasons why it’s important to keep your eyes open when watching the news or reading the paper. Because of a hidden media bias, what you’re not seeing might be the real story.