Most U.S. adults say the news media are biased and contribute to polarization in society.

Those are two key findings from a new report published by Gallup and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Eighty-six percent of respondents say they see “a great deal” (49%) or “a fair amount” (37%) of “political bias in news coverage,” while 84% assign “a great deal” (48%) or “a moderate amount” (36%) of blame to news media “for political divisions in this country.”

There is no such thing as a view from nowhere. Everyone has a stance or opinion, including members of the media.

To ensure that facts are presented thoroughly, fairly and accurately, journalists (and media outlets as a whole) must be aware of their biases when deciding what stories to cover and when formulating how they investigate and write their news articles.

For this reason, the Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics that its members commit to follow, and The Associated Press has guidelines and safeguards focused specifically on journalism ethics, to offer two examples.

And yet, 70% of respondents in this report say there is “too much bias in the selection of what stories news organizations cover or don’t cover,” while more than half of respondents perceive “a great deal” (20%) or “a fair amount” (36%) of bias in their most-trusted news outlet.

Surveys like this – coupled with terms like “alternate facts” and “fake news” becoming mainstream expressions, as well as “mainstream media” becoming a pejorative term in some circles – raise questions about public opinion / perception on such matters.

I’ve increasingly wondered whether the problem is something more fundamental than bias (perceived or actual) among some journalists and media outlets.

We teach our children to discern facts from opinions, but have many U.S. adults forgotten this skill?

I worry that citizens in increasing numbers have come to think of “facts” as that which aligns with their opinion, while anything that contradicts their “take” is dismissed as “fake news.”

When presented with data that contradicts preconceptions, “alternate facts” are now vaguely cited to avoid the difficulty of having to consider new information and possibly change one’s mind.

Put simply, could an inability to distinguish news reporting from news commentary be an underlying factor in this survey’s findings and in these trends?

While most media outlets clearly label articles as news or opinion, could it be that many read commentary by writers they agree with and interpret these “takes,” perhaps subconsciously, as reporting news / facts?

Alternately, could people read a commentary by someone they do not trust or agree with and interpret their opinion, perhaps unknowingly, as “biased reporting”?

Similarly, when people watch a news commentary program they like, could they slowly come to believe only the media outlets with TV personalities whose views align with their own are offering real news and factual information, while everyone else is “fake news”?

After all, these op-eds or “hot takes” appear on Cable News Network, Fox News, NBC News or fill-in-the-blank media outlet with “news” in their name or site URL.

Over time, are the op-ed writers and TV personalities on a given network seen as the only “fair and balanced” source for “news” – even though the person is receiving and affirming opinions about the daily news, not straight news reporting?

Anecdotal evidence suggests most of what appears on major media outlets – particularly cable news networks – is not straight news reporting; it is opinion about the news. “Only the facts” reporting without any commentary is rare.

Most of the popular and widely viewed shows have the TV personality provide a very brief summary of facts about an event, before they, and sometimes guest commentators, spend most of the segment providing a “take” or variety of “takes” on what happened.

The formula is pretty standard across all such programs: summarize what happened (news) and then offer commentary (opinion) – with a heavy, nearly exclusive, emphasis on the latter. In many instances, the ratio would not be far from 1% facts to 99% opinion.

News commentary, particularly political news, is compelling television. It typically garners higher ratings that translate into higher advertising revenue, so it makes sense for this to dominate programming.

Yet, if people in increasing numbers are equating opinion-driven programming with fact-based reporting, and I suspect this is happening, then surveys like that from Gallup / The Knight Foundation offer unsettling insight into the state of our democracy that both media outlets and the general public must work to correct.

With 43% of adults in this report saying, “there is so much bias in the news media that it’s often difficult to sort out the facts” and 56% saying their biggest concerns are that “the facts are correct, but the reporter is misrepresenting them,” media outlets must do a better job in making clear to their audience when an article or show is opinion on the news and when it is fact-only reporting.

At the same time, citizens must be more discerning in what they read and watch, continually recalling and using the foundational skills that should be learned in K-12 about discerning fact from opinion.

Otherwise, we will allow the ubiquitous news commentary to become synonymous with factual information to our collective detriment.

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