If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my five years working in media, it’s that journalists are human—flaws and all. And humans, as many researchers argue, are inherently biased.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every newspaper is unreliable or that every article you read is worthy of a “fake news” label. But even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists don’t get the facts right all the time, and sometimes, it’s what they don’t say that makes all the difference.
It’s easy to find a news source that seems credible and slip on your rose-colored glasses, content to take their reporting as straight fact. But as consumers of media in the digital age, it’s our responsibility to be diligent and ask questions about our sources—and our sources’ sources. Who’s behind the words you see on the screen? Where did they get their information from? And what lens are they looking at this issue through? (Spoiler alert: It’s not always rosey.)
If you want to be a more informed reader and ensure you’re not being duped by slanted copy, keep reading.
What is media bias?
Before you can identify bias in the media, you need to know what you’re looking for. As AllSides notes in a comprehensive resource breaking down the topic, media bias isn’t always “a bad thing.”
Let’s go back to your rose-colored glasses. When you perceive a certain outlet as unquestionably truthful, you’re looking at their work through a certain lens, one that makes you less skeptical of their reporting and more willing to trust what they say. In that same vein, some media outlets might be looking at the issues through their own lenses, whether red (i.e., conservative), blue (i.e., liberal), gold (i.e., libertarian), or otherwise. An outlet looking at the news through a bluer lens might be less skeptical of claims from a left-leaning politician like Barack Obama or more willing to trust the advice of a left-leaning expert.
Similarly, media outlets can be biased against a certain ideology or person; an outlet that presents or perceives the world through a redder lens might choose to omit facts or statistics that don’t bolster their arguments against immigration or gun reform, for instance. A libertarian outlet, on the other hand, might only present solutions to problems that cut back on or cut out the government’s influence, like advocating for a reduction in a local police force’s budget in response to allegations of police brutality.
When presenting the news through one of these colored lenses, outlets might bend the truth or leave out relevant facts altogether, but those aren’t the only ways we see bias in journalism. AllSides lists nearly a dozen other ways outlets can show bias, including by hiding important details deep within the story or using flawed logic to draw readers to a predetermined conclusion.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a stand and making an argument. The problem, according to AllSides, is when “hidden media bias misleads, manipulates and divides us.” Put another way in a Library Guide from Ohio Wesleyan University, “biased news reports present the public with an inaccurate, unbalanced, and/or unfair views of the world around them which will only lead to deeper-rooted biases.”
As readers, it’s important for us to recognize biases in news sources and treat the information contained in them accordingly. Remember, just because you know a certain political columnist leans right or left doesn’t mean their work isn’t valuable. But it does mean that their piece shouldn’t be the only one you read on that issue.
By recognizing biases and consciously seeking out outlets that portray different viewpoints, you’re stepping out of the echo chamber and becoming a more informed, more well-rounded, and more open-minded consumer of news.
How can I identify media bias online?
Admitting that your favorite news source may not be fully objective is the first step. Now, it’s time to start asking the tough questions.
As you start to examine your sources of news, here are five questions to ask to help you determine their biases and credibility:
1. Who is publishing this report?
You already know that some news organizations are known for leaning a little to the left or right, and by and large, Americans recognize this. More than half of adults polled by Gallup in 2018 said they couldn’t name an “objective news source,” and 45% reported seeing a “great deal of political bias in news coverage”—a number that’s nearly doubled since 1989. But what do you do if the news outlet hasn’t already established a reputation?
In the age of digital media, anyone can build a website and call themselves a journalist. When determining whether a news source is legitimate, look for these signs that it’s not a professional behind the screen:
- Frequent errors in spelling or grammar. Legitimate journalists are trained writers who are often vetted by professional fact-checkers and who nearly always enjoy the benefit of a professional editor. Errors might be a sign that the writer isn’t a native speaker of the language, but more often than not, frequent and repeated mistakes should be seen as a major red flag.
- Outdated or incorrect information. When I was working as a journalist, my editors were clear that a single wrong fact could ruin the publication’s reputation forever—and they were right. After all, once you see one wrong fact on the page, how can you be certain anything else you’ve read is true?
- Failure to cite sources. Major news organizations like Reuters and The New York Times are often able to talk directly with officials to get the inside scoop. While smaller outlets may not have this luxury, they should still make it clear how and where they got their information.
- Lack of transparency. News stories that are published online should include the name of the author and the date of publication. If either of these are missing, a smart reader should ask themselves: What is this outlet trying to hide?
Beyond the publication, also ask questions of the reporter themselves: What is their background or area of expertise? How long have they been covering this beat? What makes them qualified to report on this topic?
2. Where did this story’s author get their information?
Who are your sources’ sources? Is this a reporter on the ground during a small-town protest, or a celebrity journalist tweeting from the comfort of their New York City apartment? Are they talking to members of Congress, or are they regurgitating rumors overheard in the hallways of the Capitol?
The question gets more complicated when news outlets cite anonymous sources. Remember, just because a source is anonymous doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate. As the Los Angeles Times’ Chris Megerian explained in a September 2018 tweet, “‘anonymous sources’ aren’t really anonymous;” the reporters know who the sources are, they “just withhold their names.”
That said, repeated use of unnamed sources, or worse, outwardly offering sources the chance to speak off-the-record, can be a bad sign. The Associated Press, a highly regarded source of news among journalists that AllSides places in the center rather than on the right or left, sets strict limits on when and how anonymous sources can be used in their reports. From the AP’s website:
Under AP’s rules, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:
1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.
In addition, AP’s editors are tasked with vetting any anonymous sources, and their writers are required to “explain in the story why the source requested anonymity.” NPR, another outlet that rides the center line, according to AllSides, provides its team with similar guidance.
These organizations are taking conscious steps to assure their readers that anonymous sources will be used sparingly and only in certain, specific circumstances. Still, it’s up to readers to decide whether they feel the organizations’ promises have been kept.
3. What questions does this article fail to answer?
In other words, what does this article leave out? The omission of relevant details is one of the most popular forms of bias in news today—and it’s why it’s important to read beyond the oftentimes-clickbait headline when scrolling through news articles on Facebook or Twitter. You simply can’t get the whole story just from a few words, and context is important when we’re talking about current world issues.
While not all news stories are alike, most journalists should strive to cover the following questions in their work:
- What is the newsworthy event? In other words, what happened? Most times, the answer is located in the very first sentence of the story, also known as the “lede.”
- Who is involved? You’ve already delved into story’s sources, but what about its subject? If an article is covering a recent crime in your city, does it focus on the victim or the perpetrator? Why do you think that is?
- Where did this take place? Is this a local story concerning a nearby school district? A national headline about the president’s latest executive order? National news organizations like USA Today or the Wall Street Journal might publish small-town stories that they feel are relevant to Americans at large, but some might also cherry-pick stories that fit their agendas. If the story isn’t being covered more widely, consider why the outlet is sharing this information and what they stand to gain from it.
- When did this happen? Most journalists strive to have the most up-to-date information in their stories. If the story doesn’t provide any new information or looks back on an event that happened a month, a year, or even a decade ago, why does the outlet feel it’s relevant now? There could be a legitimate reason, like to fact-check a politician’s claim or draw attention to an incumbent candidate’s voting record, but it’s worth a second glance.
- What does this newsworthy event mean for the future? If the president signed an executive order, what will the order do? How does it alter the status quo? If these questions are answered in the report, double check that the journalist is sharing a fact rather than expressing an opinion.
It can also be beneficial to take a step back and ask the broader question of the publication itself: What stories is this outlet overall failing to cover? According to AllSides, “[m]edia outlets sometimes omit stories in order to serve a political agenda.”
In some cases, AllSides contends, “a story will only be covered by media outlets on a certain side of the political spectrum.” The organization cited its own research that showed stories about the 2012 attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, “were mostly ignored by the Left, while some climate change stories have been mostly ignored by the Right[.]” Taking a look at what subjects the publication tends to report on can give you clues as to which direction they lean in.
4. Why is this information relevant?
Seeing outdated or irrelevant information should already throw up some red flags, but this question is about more than just whether the story is relevant to you. What prompted the author of the piece—or its publisher—to approach this topic? Why do they feel this issue is important to cover? In what way, if any, will they benefit from sharing this information with readers?
It was skepticism about the media’s motives that led an investigator from the controversial right-leaning watchdog organization Project Veritas into a series of interviews with The Washington Post in the fall of 2017. The Washington Post bolstered its reputation by publishing a piece outlining in transparent terms how the woman had shared with them “a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with [then-Republican Senate candidate Roy] Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15,” but explaining that they did not, and would not, publish the woman’s account without some sort of evidence proving her story. The news came amid a series of reports alleging sexual misconduct by Moore.
In its article, The Washington Post explained how its reporters’ actions in response to the woman’s allegations aligned with the paper’s broader commitment to journalistic integrity, writing:
The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.
Had the Post fallen for the trick, it could have ruined a reputation the publication has been working nearly 150 years to build.
Also important to consider is when the report is being published in relation to other world events. A particularly damning story released right before a major election could crush a political campaign—and in some circumstances, that may be warranted. But readers shouldn’t shrug off such a move without doing their due diligence.
5. What are other sources saying about this topic?
The best way to know if you’re getting the full story from a particular news outlet is to look elsewhere. In addition to getting the answers to questions not broached in the original report, reading other stories will help provide context and ensure you’re not missing important details because a particular publication got them wrong—or simply decided to leave them out.
Reading more news stories will also make you more adept at identifying legitimate reporting just by sensing the author’s tone, voice, and structure. Most news stories follow the same standard format, starting with the most important and newsworthy information, and closing with minor details that the writer knows could be cut in editing. (Especially in the world of print journalism, we’re always trying to save space on the page.) If you notice a story opens with a hyperbole or persuasive statement, it could be a sign that the author is only going to give you one side of the story.
A great resource to use to see what different news organizations on various points of the political spectrum are saying about a particular topic is AllSides’ website, where they break down what stories are being covered by the left, right, and center, and provide links to articles from multiple sources all covering the same subject.
Here’s The Bottom Line.
Of course, media bias comes in many forms, some more obvious than others. But by keeping an eye out for red flags and asking questions about your sources, you can avoid missing important details that could change your perception of the bigger picture.
And for those already set in their ways, knowing what the other side believes—and why they believe it—can only strengthen your position when it comes time to defend your stance.
Have you seen a rise in misinformation online in recent years? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
This article was first published Oct. 4, 2020.