on November 6, 2019 by Sean Michael Milligan in Journal, Comments (0)


One of the major news items over the past couple of weeks has been the California wildfires. Much of the coverage I’ve encountered has focused on preventative efforts rather than actual firefighting, in particular the way some areas have been intentionally blacked-out to reduce the risk of fires starting from electrical discharge. An article from the Columbia Journalism Review, however, noted several wildfire-related issues that were not receiving much attention from the news media, such as the long-term effects of worsening air quality due to the fires and the way California uses inmates as firefighters.

This article highlighted the fact that there is more to the wildfire story—and, indeed, every news story—than what we see or hear in the news. This is one major way bias can creep into the news; a journalist or even a whole news organization can take a fair and even-handed approach to the stories they tell, but they still choose to tell some stories and not others, or leave certain elements of stories out. Communication scholars call this “agenda-setting”—the way that media tells the public what issues are important by focusing on some and ignoring others.

Agenda-setting isn’t really something that can be fixed. The reality of reporting the news in an efficient and comprehensible manner means that there is simply no way to cover every single aspect of a story in a single article. I think, however, that this is one area where the digital revolution has helped matters, at least when it comes to print articles. Those reading an article can click on the hyperlinks within or the “related stories” at the end to gain a fuller understanding of the subject of the story. It’s hardly a perfect solution, of course, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.

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