The media industry is profit-driven like any other, and for the media profits are synonymous with eyeballs. The more eyeballs they can train on their product, the more of your attention they have to sell to advertisers. There is a particular type of story we're seeing repeatedly on the internet lately, one that is specifically crafted to go viral. The target audience for most online-oriented media outlets is the 18-54 group, and if there is one thing we love it's the sound of our own voices. If we have room to love anything else, it is getting righteously indignant in Facebook comments when our friends share news stories designed to provide us with maximum opportunity to get righteously indignant.
For all the whining that Americans do about media bias, they are endlessly capable of overlooking it or simply ignoring it when it suits their preferences and beliefs. If (political) media bias is the act of framing a story in a way that reflects unduly positively or negatively on one particular side of an issue, then I am not sure I have seen a more blatantly biased article than this popular Facebook share item from last week regarding the fast food stroke. Originally from the Detroit News, it was syndicated and widely distributed via Huffington Post.
As the authors are skilled at their craft, the text of the article is mostly bland and inoffensive. Then they quoted one of the professed strikers:
Shaniqua Davis, 20, lives in the Bronx with her boyfriend, who is unemployed, and their 1-year-old daughter. Davis has worked at a McDonald's a few blocks from her apartment for the past three months, earning $7.25 an hour. Her schedule varies, but she never gets close to 40 hours a week. "Forty? Never. They refuse to let you get to that (many) hours."
Her weekly paycheck is $150 or much lower. "One of my paychecks, I only got $71 on there. So I wasn't able to do much with that. My daughter needs stuff, I need to get stuff for my apartment," said Davis, who plans to take part in the strike Thursday.
She pays the rent with public assistance but struggles to afford food, diapers, subway and taxi fares, cable TV and other expenses with her paycheck.
"It's really hard," she said. "If I didn't have public assistance to help me out, I think I would have been out on the street already with the money I make at McDonald's."
Talk about a healthy serving of red meat. What doesn't this quote have? It tells you she's black ("Shaniqua lives in the Bronx…"), that she's an unwed mother, that her boyfriend is unemployed, and she's on what people who like to bitch about this sort of thing generically call "welfare." Best of all, she's poor and she says she has cable TV. See? SEE? This is something everyone can enjoy; right wingers get to fly into a pant shitting rage about how the money they work SO HARD for (never too hard to prevent them from commenting on this story on Facebook at work) is going to Welfare Queens to buy cable TV and twerking and Big Screen TVs and the hip-hop music. Centrists and the more patronizing left wing types get to enter Paternalism Mode to explain that we need to teach The Poors to make better choices with their money.
I wrote this post after reading the HuffPo story and seeing it moralistically debated on Facebook numerous times. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see the original version and, I shit you not, this is the very first comment on the Detroit News online story:
Thanks for making my point, Phil Koprowski, proud graduate of Anchor Bay High School in the coastal resort town of New Baltimore, Michigan!
How many people do you think the writer(s) interviewed? How many people do you think they could have interviewed? That is, what is the population of New York City fast food workers? If that group isn't 500,000 strong I'd be shocked. How many of them did they have to interview until they found Shaniqua Davis, unwed single mom of the Bronx, who is on public assistance but tells the reporter that she has cable TV?
This. This is biased journalism. This is cherry-picking a quote out of the sea of possible interviewees and quotes to make an ideological point. As a journalist, you don't go into a laundry list of what someone spends their monthly paychecks on unless you're grinding an ideological ax. You don't accidentally choose a subject for your story that fits the prejudices and caricatures in the minds of newspapers' target demographic (white people with disposable income) so cleanly. The story may be about the fast food strike, ostensibly, but 90% of readers are going to take exactly one thing away from this story: Here we go again, more black inner city single moms looking for more handouts to support their Cadillac lifestyles.
It's not hard to read a news item and tell that the writer has gone on a fishing expedition to find the most outlandish, stereotype-reinforcing quote to portray a group of people in the most negative, unsympathetic light. This story is written to produce the sound of screeching tires in the reader's mind as soon as the words "cable TV" appear, and everyone's too busy pontificating on their own industriousness or taking the White Man's Burden view of Those People (If only we could teach them our middle class values!) to think at all about media bias let alone connect the dots to this story.