Decision 2012: Media Literacy
In a democracy, every citizen has a duty to make an informed decision in the voting booth. But in an age of big-budget campaign ads, Twitter feeds, super PACs* and the 24-hour news cycle, it can be more difficult than ever to weed out the facts from the spin. It's information overload, littered with bias, incomplete data and outright lies. Today's voters need to know how to evaluate election media coverage and gather reliable information from trustworthy sources.
Presidential candidates work hard to convey certain ideas about themselves when they campaign, a process commonly referred to as shaping their images. Part of a candidate's image is a product of the messages that reach voters directly — campaign ads, stump speeches, emails to supporters and social media outreach. The candidate's campaign staff has control over these messages — from the photographs released to the public to the adjectives that describe the candidate. However, the messages that reach voters through the media — news coverage of debates and campaign appearances or the candidate's responses to breaking news stories — also shape image. The candidate can't always control this coverage, but that doesn't mean he or she won't try. From befriending reporters to staging carefully crafted photo ops, presidential candidates draw from a range of tools to mold their images in any way they can.
A candidate's image is not necessarily how he or she really is. To make an informed choice, voters need to be able to locate reliable election news coverage and separate the reality of a candidate's personal traits and record from the illusions created by sensational reporting and carefully crafted photo ops.
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Most news organizations strive for clarity, fairness and accuracy, yet the public often gives the media low marks for credibility. The high stakes of a presidential campaign often lead to increased accusations of media bias or reporting that favors one perspective or position on a story. This video explores some of the causes of bias in the media and shows how news consumers can learn to recognize and discourage unfair reporting.
Most of the time, when critics of the media talk about bias, they're referring to political or ideological bias — favoring one party or perspective, liberal or conservative, over the other. Some believe that journalists set aside their personal political views when they step into their professional roles while others argue that true objectivity is a mirage. There are other kinds of bias as well, with even greater potential to affect the information the general public receives. Information bias refers to the idea that how a story is reported will shape the audience's knowledge about a subject. These forms of bias are not intentionally misleading, but when they occur, they can color the content of the news. For example, journalists sometimes seek to personalize and dramatize stories to make them more compelling, but the results may jeopardize the ability of their readers or viewers to grasp the complete context in favor of a focus on a few people or ideas. Limited space and airtime also lead to the fragmentation of stories, as news organizations make choices about what news to publish that inevitably leave some relevant information out of their final reports.
When you evaluate election coverage, it's important to consider the source's potential bias — not simply whether the source favors the Republican or Democratic candidate, but also how the story is presented and whether it leaves you with questions about additional information necessary to fully understand current events.
*You can find the definitions of boldfaced words in the Decision 2012 Glossary.
More to Explore
Since 1952, TV campaign ads have played a role in presidential elections. And from the beginning, ads have used deceptive techniques to try to sway public opinion.
One of the best ways to increase your understanding of election news is to learn about the process behind the stories that appear in print and on television. Try your hand at campaign reporting.
What does "good" journalism look like? Explore journalism codes of ethics and apply your own standards to coverage of the current campaign.
Media literacy is a vital skill not just for understanding the events taking place in our own country but also for building awareness of our nation's place in the world. Compare domestic coverage of our presidential election to international perspectives.