“Media bias” has been an issue since the 1960s and before, as various social movements have claimed — and often shown — how the mainstream media selectively reinforce an establishment view of the world. That bias had to do with who our enemies are (in the 1950s and 1960s, Communists; today, ISIS), whose voices were important enough to be heard (generally, experts who are White, male academics or businessmen) and what issues were never to be talked about (such as White privilege, sexism or the merits of socialism versus capitalism).
“Skewed,” however, isn’t about this sort of media bias. Journalism professor Larry Atkins is concerned, with perhaps some reason, about the fact that a majority of people in this country — both young and old — get their news from social media and/or talk radio, news sources that tend to give a biased view of the world from either a “conservative” or “liberal” viewpoint. As Atkins points out, there are dangers in creating an echo chamber by paying attention only to news sites that reinforce one’s own worldview. He tries to distinguish between “objective” media that report the facts (as they see them) and media that attempt to entertain while they reinforce a particular ideological stance. Atkins sees the move away from mainstream news sources as a major factor in the increasing political polarization of the country.
Atkins’ approach to bias, which essentially is to recommend paying more attention to “centrist” news sources, ignores the question of establishment bias. He doesn’t seem aware, for example, that “objective” sources such as NPR or The New York Times have been shown to have their own bias in the kinds of “experts” they choose to interview — for example, tending to choose business representatives over labor representatives in commenting on economic policy, or choosing pro-war over anti-war commentators in discussing intervention in the Middle East.
To Atkins, “bias” has to do with how far a media source strays from the old consensus. For example, he writes: “Reporters’ own race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation can influence their opinions and potentially inject bias into their reporting.” As examples, he names reporters who are Latino, African-American, or lesbian, as well as mentioning anti-abortion Christian reporters. So non-Christian, White, male or heterosexual biases are invisible to him.
While the echo-chamber effect Atkins cites is a problem in modern politics, it’s worsened — more on the right, but also on the left and in more centrist media — by a tendency to omit inconvenient truths (such as that “free” trade agreements have consistently cost jobs), report an “accepted version” of events that didn’t really happen (e.g., that there were riots in Seattle during the WTO or chair-throwers during the Nevada Democratic convention) or simply make up stories that fit a political perspective (like the conspiracy theory of climate science). However, a lack of commitment to the truth is not new in media; it’s just gotten more blatant and more accepted by media audiences. Atkins’ way of addressing this problem is to suggest that reporters and media consumers not believe anything unless it’s repeated in a “reliable” source and that they consult fact-checking sites and online verification tools. He does discuss some of these sites, but without any evaluation or ranking of their usefulness.
This lack of evaluation is typical of “Skewed,” large chunks of which are actually strung-together quotes from other authors, sometimes repeating almost the same points, sometimes contradicting each other, but rarely summed up to any kind of insightful conclusion. It’s often hard to tell what Atkins’ opinions are, as if he’s simply “reporting” about what other people think on a topic.
The book suffers from poor editing, as well; for example, a discussion of problems with embedded reporting first surfaces in a chapter on reporters’ bias and then recurs, in almost the same form, in a chapter on how to be a savvy media consumer. Sometimes Atkins will introduce a topic, stray away from it for a few paragraphs, and then return to it as if he’d never gotten sidetracked. The whole book reads as if it had been constructed of cut-and-pasted pieces from other essays, articles and lectures. Atkins also seems to be allergic to any use of bullets, graphic elements, tables or subheads to break up his text into digestible pieces, which is an odd characteristic in somebody who teaches journalism. Long lists that should be in tables or footnotes instead take up narrative paragraphs of half a page or longer.
Rather than a guide, “Skewed” is a textbook-like survey of the history of bias in media and how it functions in the current media landscape. Perhaps its intended purpose is as required reading for students in Atkins’ classes. Given the poor writing and lack of any real insight into the causes of or cures for media bias, that’s likely the main audience for the book.