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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Partisan Media and Public Perception

Journalists and scholars discussed the difference between a biased public and a biased media at last Friday’s third annual ethics conference at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. In the process, they introduced the “hostile media” theory into the debate over partisan media.

This year’s conference was entitled “In Your Face: Partisan Media in a Democracy,” and a wide range of participants discussed issues that journalists face in an ever-growing public sphere. The program’s fourth panel, “Opinion and Partisan Journalism Across Borders,” analyzed the impact partisan media in one nation can have on its own public as well as audiences in other nations.

Hernando Rojas

Prof. Hernando Rojas/photo by Brett Blaske

The panel took an interesting turn when Hernando Rojas, an associate professor at the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication, initiated a conversation about the relationship between public opinion and public perception of the media. Rojas, who is from Colombia, said that Colombian media have historically maintained an intimate relationship with businesses and private interest groups. As a result, the media were polarized along party lines, though Colombian media today have acquired a newfound independence and professionalism.

Yet despite all of this progress, Rojas said, media are still perceived as more biased than ever before by the public. As a result, Rojas believes that in addition to discussions about media and partisanship, people must also acknowledge rising partisanship among the public and political constituents. What many see as media partisanship may ultimately be bias among viewers.

Ira Basen of CBC Radio in Canada echoed similar thoughts when discussing Canadian perception of Fox News. Canadian broadcasting is heavily regulated, and the liberal values that are at the nation’s core political philosophy must be represented in Canadian broadcasting. Conservatives are in the minority in Canada, in both the public and media spheres.

Canada is currently in the midst of a federal election, and Basen argued the conservatives will win in all likelihood despite the fact that they are the nation’s minority party. There is not a large constituency for a conservative media in Canada, according to Basen, especially a media outlet as well-known as Fox News.

“Canadians are by and large freaked out by Fox News,” Basen said bluntly. They are also worried about the emergence of Sun News TV, branded as a Fox News for the north. Petitions have cropped up across Canada, including “Stop Fox News North,” to prohibit “American-style hate media” from making its way to Canada.

However, Basen admitted that most Canadians don’t even have access to Fox News, and those who do seldom watch it. Instead, most of their knowledge of the station stems from Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In the case of Canada and Fox News then, it could be argued that, regardless of whether Fox News is partisan or not, Canadian public perception is skewed based on having primarily one source of information.

Partisanship among the public was also seen in Prof. Jo Ellen Fair’s commentary on Africa and Prof. Shakuntala Rao’s discussion on media in India. Fair argued that people in the U.S. have convinced themselves that an unbiased, objective press was ideal. In Africa, however, there are 54 nations, each with many different subgroups. Many of these nations have adopted some sort of democratic government, but that doesn’t mean they can adhere to the same democratic principles the U.S. can. There are so many cultural values and identities in Africa that one cohesive medium seems impossible. Fair argued that there is extreme pressure on African journalists to straddle both the societal values and media ethics.

“African journalists lead double lives. They talk the talk of liberal democracy and they walk the walk of group solidarity,” she said.

As many African nations experience a different form of democracy, their views of how media should act are also different. Democracy and journalistic freedom go hand in hand in the U.S. as a staple of the American conception of liberty. Africans don’t experience independence in the same way; therefore their societal perception of a partisan press differs as well, much in the manner that Rojas discussed.

Similarly, Rao says the media in India have grown extensively since the 1990’s. The nation has over 120 news channels broadcast in more than 20 languages. The true test of Indian culture, much like that in Africa, is to straddle the ideals of a nation as well as smaller cultural groups. Rao stated that the ultimate goal of the transition in Indian journalism is to strengthen the democratic state. However, amidst a state of extensive corruption and numerous indigenous populations, producing one unified national image is almost impossible. India, too, perceives its media and the issue of partisanship differently than Americans do.

The issue of partisan media will never disappear, but the media are not solely responsible. Nations have different cultural backgrounds and beliefs, so what is seen as partisanship in one country may be seen as something else entirely in a different country. This panel proved that other factors, including people’s own biases and national values, can affect whether a media outlet is viewed as partisan or not.

 

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