How to Evaluate News Sources for Media Bias
Media bias is when the mass media (for example: newspapers, television news channels, radio news programs, and news websites) presents or reports the news in a way that reflects a chosen viewpoint or bias. When the mass media uses bias to present a story, the goal is to persuade news consumers (those who hear, see, and read the news) to adopt the bias. Media bias can also be expressed by what the media fails to present to the public, or media bias by omission. In media bias by omission, a news story may go unreported or key information may be left out of a report that could change the way we view a particular issue, ideology, public figure, or politician.
Media bias is a form of propaganda, because it twists facts to promote political causes or points of view. The mass media, in using media bias, deliberately frames news content to further an agenda. A news presenter may, for instance, choose to leave out facts that would support a different viewpoint from his own or from that of his employers. A news presenter working to promote a specific agenda may leave out important details (context) of a news story that would give the story a different meaning and might turn people against that agenda. Adjectives might be used to characterize people in the news or their actions (brave, ugly, wise, aloof) in order to bias the consumer in favor of or against them. When actions or people are characterized in a straight news piece (as opposed to an op-ed or opinion piece), bias is inherent (built-in) and obvious.
In media bias, the bias is often about politics. Where media bias is political, the news stories will favor one side, ideology, or belief, over the other. A news outlet with progressive politics may, for example, present the news with a progressive bias. A news outlet with conservative politics may present the news with a conservative bias.
The opposite of media bias is balance. Presenting a balanced report means presenting all the available facts of a story, using neutral language. Balanced reporting leaves the news consumer free to decide how he feels about a particular news story or issue based on all the available information. In presenting a balanced perspective, the goal is to encourage the news consumer to examine all sides of an issue and to use critical thinking skills to come to an independent conclusion about the story.
In a democracy, where freedom of the press is a value, journalists are expected to uphold ethical standards. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States, was formed for the purpose of developing and enforcing an ethics code for journalists. The preamble to the SPJ Code of Ethics states:
...public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.
There is an important connection between media standards and democracy. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of protecting American democracy as "a government of the people, by the people, for the people." This means that the American government represents the will of the American people. The citizens themselves choose what kind of laws they want and what kind of people get to make those laws. Americans have the right to vote for president and other elected officials. The choice to vote for one candidate or another, however, is largely based on information American citizens receive through the press.
High media standards help ensure that news is presented in a fair, balanced, and unbiased manner. News presented without bias preserves the freedom of the people to make their own decisions about public policy. An unbiased media, free of propaganda, is the essence of a robust or healthy democracy.
Media bias, on the other hand, prevents the public from getting straight and accurate information about the important issues of the day, government officials, and those running for office. This means that citizens cannot make educated decisions about issues or cast informed votes in the ballot booth. Where information is distorted through media bias, the democratic process is undermined because people don't have access to the facts they need to make independent decisions.
It is a reporter's job to present balanced news stories. The news consumer's job is to listen and watch for bias rather than to accept the news at face value. When the news consumer keeps watch over the news, the reporter is held to the expected standard: providing balance, rather than bias. If many news consumers decide a reporter is presenting biased news reports, consumers may go elsewhere for their news. This too, is the face of a healthy democracy.
As news consumers, we can think if a story fits one of these forms of media bias as we watch, listen to, or read the news:
Types Of Media Bias:Bias by selective omission - leaving one side out of an article, or leaving one side out of a series of related articles over time; leaving out facts or context that disprove or support one belief over another. Bias by selective omission may occur within one story, or over time as a news outlet reports one set of events, but not another. To identify bias by selective omission, the news consumer must be aware of both the liberal and conservative perspectives of current events and issues. Check to see that both perspectives are included in stories on specific events or policies. Read several stories from various news outlets to check for missing context or a missing frame of reference for the reader.
Bias by selection of sources - including more sources to back one view over another. When journalists quote or interview experts, the consumer should know the group associations and political leanings of the experts. If experts representing only one side of an issue are voicing an opinion, this is the side the news outlet supports. Sometimes many experts from one side plus a token expert from the other side will present opinions to give the appearance of balance. For real balance, there should be an equal number of experts from both sides, and each side should have the same amount of time to voice opinions. Where non-experts are quoted, for instance average citizens, check to see there are an equal number of opinions for each side.
Bias by story selection -a pattern of reporting stories and studies that further the agenda of either the Left or the Right, ignoring stories and studies representing the opposite viewpoint. To identify bias by story selection, know the conservative and liberal sides of issues. Look for and compare the amount of coverage conservative issues get compared to issues on the liberal agenda, and vice versa. If two politicians running for the same office are accused of bad behavior or crimes, and one is liberal, while the other is a conservative, compare how much coverage is given to the behavior of each candidate. If there is more coverage of the misbehavior of a liberal candidate, the outlet has a conservative bias. If there is more coverage of the misbehavior of the conservative candidate, the outlet has a liberal bias. A balanced outlet will offer the same amount of coverage for both politicians.
Bias by placement - a pattern of placing news stories higher or lower on the page to play up or downplay information that supports conservative or liberal views. Where the story appears in a newspaper or on a website tells the reader how important the story is from the perspective of the editor. In media bias, a story may appear as front page news, to maximize its importance to the reader or in small print deep into the pages of a newspaper to minimize its importance to the reader. To identify examples of bias by placement, look to see where media outlets place political stories. Watch to see how far into a story each viewpoint, conservative and liberal, appear. Both viewpoints should be represented at approximately the same point in the story.
Bias by labeling - the tagging of liberal or conservative politicians and groups with extreme labels (alt right, far left) while leaving politicians and groups of the opposite side either unlabeled or tagged with milder labels (conservative, progressive); failing to identify a liberal or conservative as such, instead using positive labels such as "our expert" or "director of an independent think tank." In using the positive label, the reporter suggests the expert has authority, rather than a particular viewpoint. If the reporter were to identify the expert as "conservative" or "liberal" the news consumer could bear this in mind when deciding on the accuracy of the information presented. Hiding this information, or not sharing it, shows bias. Sometimes bias by labeling is expressed when an expert speaking for one side is labeled while the expert speaking for the other side is not. Be aware of or check for an expert's affiliations where none are offered by reporters. Watch to see if labels are accurate, used appropriately, and not omitted.
Bias by description - using adjectives and characterization in straight news stories to paint a favorable or unfavorable picture of a politician or issue. Bias by description is seen when politicians and issues on one side of the political divide are characterized using positive language while the other side is described using negative language. In bias by description, sometimes one side is characterized, either favorably or unfavorably, while the other side is ignored. The reader should find little or no characterization of issues and people in straight news stories. Where there is characterization, the reader should check that both sides receive the same amount and same type of characterization.
Bias by spin - offering a positive interpretation of the facts especially where there is only one (usually negative) way to understand a story; the reporter uses true facts to draw false conclusions. Spin is about adding tone and opinion to a news report. In bias by spin, the reporter offers a subjective take on objective facts to place the reporter's ideological viewpoint in a better light. To check for spin, examine the facts to see if they fit the liberal or the conservative view, then check to see if the reporter's interpretation of the facts support this view. Some stories do not reflect any ideology. If the facts don't reflect an ideology, but the reporter suggests they support an ideology to the exclusion of another, you're looking at bias by spin. A reporter may summarize spin put out by both sides. If both sides are represented to the same extent, this would still be a balanced report. News consumers should be wary of reporters using true facts to draw false conclusions. Think carefully whether the report makes logical sense.
Bias by opinion - opinion offered as news. The reporter's opinion or interpretation of events has no place in a straight news story. Opinion belongs in an editorial or opinion piece. Where the reporter offers an opinion or an interpretation of events, this must be stated clearly. Check for opinion in a news piece, especially where the reporter does not clearly state that this is the case. If an opinion or an interpretation is offered in a straight news piece, especially where not labeled as such, this is bias by opinion.
Bias by distortion - getting the facts wrong, lying, a lack of transparency. The news consumer should check to see if the media outlet has a reputation for honesty, reporting the whole story, and verifying the facts. Check other news stories and their sources to see if they report the story the same way.
We might think that in a perfect world, the news consumer could trust the media to only tell the facts and the truth. We don't live in a perfect world, however, but in the real world. Watching for media bias involves active listening and thinking. The news consumer keeps the media in check by not taking the news at face value, but by remaining alert to the possibility of media bias in each and every news story served. Holding the media accountable is the best way to ensure that journalists will maintain ethical standards and offer balanced reporting.
Varda Meyers Epstein is Editor in Chief of the Educational Blog for Parents at Kars4Kids, a Guidestar gold medal charity funding educational initiatives for children.