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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Considering Media Bias

Today, critics of the news media often accuse newspapers and television news programs of bias. Earlier in our nation’s history, many newspapers were openly biased; journalistic “objectivity” was not even a recognized goal of the profession. Evidence of engrained bias is clear in the newspapers in this collection. Consider the following statement from the Alton, Illinois, Spectator:

We deem it proper, at this time, to make an exposition of the course we intend to pursue, and of the PRINCIPLES we shall advocate.

We are for a LIBERAL construction of the Constitution, as it now is—one that shall develop the GENIUS of our REPUBLIC, and equally foster and protect her liberal INSTITUTIONS—we believe in the self-government of the PEOPLE; in a FREE-TRADE, and the disseveration of the Government from the Traffic and Commerce of the Country. . . .

We are for the freedom of SPEECH, and the Liberty of the Press, and a universal SUFFRAGE.

From “The Alton Spectator, December 13, 1838,” image 1, column 3

Read the remainder of this statement from the publisher of The Alton Spectator.

  • What general principles does the publisher pledge to support?
  • On what specific issues does the publisher state a position?
  • With what founder of the United States does the newspaper agree? Whose ideas does it oppose?
  • Read the more of the December 13, 1838, issue of The Alton Spectator. What evidence do you find evidence of the stated biases in other stories?
  • What do you think of a newspaper publishing an explanation of its biases? Would you recommend such a practice for media sources today? Why or why not?

Read the political news in the Elmira [New York] Daily Advertiser of October 24, 1860. What biases do you detect in the coverage? Write a statement from the publisher of the Elmira Daily Advertiser explaining the paper’s positions.