Imagine a scenario where two people are watching the exact same news segment. One of the individuals in question is on the Liberal-Left side of the spectrum, while the other sides with the Conservative-Right. Now imagine that at the end of the segment, both individuals angrily decree that the news piece is biased against them. This is actually such a common scenario that there is a term for it: the hostile media effect. The HME refers to partisans of opposing views holding that neutral media coverage is biased against them.
The HME is a relatively newly coined term, stemming back from a study at Stanford University in 1985. Both pro-Israeli and Pro-Arab students were shown footage of the tragic 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre, whereupon Palestinian civilians were killed in Lebanese refugee camps while Israeli soldiers idly stood by. In the footage, the culpability of the Israelis is debated. Both pro-Arab students and pro-Israeli students felt the coverage was siding against them. Since the official identification of this phenomenon in 1985, it has surfaced countless times in practically every culture and setting, proving just how difficult the job can be for journalists.
Further research revealed several more things. The brand has a severe impact for example —when test participants were shown a news story labeled with the CNN logo, they reacted differently than when the identical story was shown with the Al Jazeera logo. Studies also have shown that individuals who self-categorize are the most likely to feel defensive and victimized by the press. The more emotionally invested in leftwing politics one might be, the more likely said person will suspect rightwing bias in the media, and vice versa. News stories concerning other countries are also less likely to provoke the audience, as they generally instill patriotism and cohesion among citizens.
What does this mean for journalists? Many new principles of ethical journalism are manifest by HME, as well as the reinforcement of several old principles. Journalists need to make it clear that they have no political preference (even if they actually do) so as to gain the public’s trust. Journalists should be mindful of how they frame stories, taking special care to cater to the broader group and not specific subgroups. The journalist also needs to be relatable to the audience. A quick way to earn the public’s trust is to show you are one of them. Overall the driving emphasis is simply this: avoid bias at all costs. As HME shows, journalists are at a terminus a quo disadvantage, because the public is inclined to blame the media no matter how neutral the story may be. In this context, any additional bias is sure to incite the already dubious audience. Lastly, if you as the journalist catch an occasional bit of grief — remember that it is an inevitable part of the job— do not let it negatively affect your reporting. Keep your eye on the ethics behind the profession.