Instead of pointing fingers, let’s recognize and navigate biased news

There’s a good chance you’ve seen this Venn Diagram floating around the internet. It offers a handy guide to navigating various news outlets and their patterns of bias. Take a look and see where your favorite news outlet falls.

venn-diagram

Did this chart treat your favorite news outlet fairly? If you’re a fan of The Blaze or Occupy Democrats, you may be a bit disappointed— or even angry. You may even protest, “But they’re the only ones that actually tell the truth!”

For most people, bias in news is only a problem if they disagree with that outlet or journalist. But recognizing bias— in the outlets that you choose to consume as well as in the ones you dismiss— is vital for knowing how to consume news with a healthy grain of salt. Bias isn’t going away anytime soon, so learning to navigate it is vital for any media literate citizen.

A couple of key points are worth mentioning in service of this goal.

  • No news outlet is monolithic; each one is made up of individuals who may or may not share the outlet’s mission or the vision of its producers. To dismiss an entire media outlet as biased (and therefore worthless) will often create a disconnect between you and the consumers of that outlet. Do you think regular viewers of The Blaze have many friends who consume only Occupy Democrats? Be willing to consume news that you normally wouldn’t. Otherwise it can be difficult to dialogue with the other side of the political fence.
  • Disagreeing with a piece of journalism does not make it “fake news,” despite certain people’s insistence to the contrary. In the US we find ourselves in the extraordinary position of having the President’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, declare the press an “opposition party.” The facts of a news story ought to be indisputable, but each story will put its own spin on them— it’s inevitable. Be ready for it.
  • Journalism is a constitutionally protected profession in this county, and anyone who calls themselves a journalist ought to take their role seriously. The press have an extraordinary ability to set the agenda for debate and prompt the public to discuss issues that they cover, and part of an outlet’s bias can involve what they choose to include and exclude from their coverage.

Well-established “legacy media” organizations such as National Public Radio are often touted as the only sources for unbiased news, but the truth is it’s impossible to eradicate bias completely. Recognizing bias doesn’t have to mean “bashing” any particular outlet, and nor is it inherently political to point out bias; it’s simply good to know what you’re up against, no matter what side you align with. Brooke Gladstone wrote a book in 2011 that enumerates several forms of bias to watch out for:

  • Commercial bias. It’s pretty simple; most news outlets need to make money, and thus will lean toward stories that are likely to get high ratings (or increasingly, high internet traffic). The demographics of an outlet’s audience— their customer base— can shape what they choose to cover and how. Case in point: Fox News, an oft-quoted example of a news outlet with a glaring bias. 60% of Fox News viewers describe themselves as conservative, compared with 23% who say they are moderate and 10% who are liberal, according to the Pew Research Center. Nothing wrong with that; they’ve cornered a demographic and of course must do what they can to remain profitable. But for years, Fox has claimed that far from being a biased news channel, they are the only unbiased news channel. By dismissing other news channels and outlets as “the liberal mainstream media,” Fox gives its audience the assurance that they are watching the only truthful source of news, and keeps them coming back. (Don’t think for a second that I’m letting liberal-leaning publications off the hook. The Huffington Post does the exact same thing, but for a younger, liberal audience.)
  • Bad-news bias. Pretty self explanatory; highlighting conflict is easier than finding the good aspects of a story or going in-depth. The hackneyed journalistic phrase “If it bleeds, it leads” come to mind. Have you ever noticed how many crime stories there are on local TV?
  • Status quo bias. Many news outlets are large corporations, which in some ways tend to resist change. No matter the affiliation of the outlet, it can sometimes be hard to cover something new in the right way. (Don’t forget, The Huffington Post initially relegated coverage of Donald Trump to the entertainment section rather than the news section.)
  • Visual Bias. Cable news and local TV news are particularly prone to this. In the online world, outlets such as Vox may be especially drawn to stories that can be presented graphically.
  • Narrative bias. Narratives can be found in any news outlet’s coverage, because humans naturally arrange the world into “stories” that are easier to understand. An outlet such as CNN covers ongoing stories constantly, and it is often easy to discern the way the many disparate stories fit together into a larger narrative. These narratives need not be conspiracy-theory style lies, but it’s important to recognize them.
  • Fairness bias. The notion that every story needs equal representation from both sides of an argument is fallacious, mainly because there are always multiple sides to a story, and not all of them need— or deserve— equal weight.

The most important takeaway is this: a balanced diet of news is essential. The citizen who cares about being well-informed ought to follow several diverse news outlets. Here are a few factors to consider when choosing which outlets to follow.

  • Independence. Most news outlets are commercial (they depend on advertising) but mostly independent in terms of their freedom to report on whatever they want; others, such as the BBC and NPR, are funded mainly by governments, donations, or a combination of both. Being non-commercial does not exclude the possibility of bias, of course, but it lessens the chances of the outlet’s coverage being skewed to favor their sponsors.
  • Format. Most Americans still get their news from cable TV, which has its limitations as a medium (see Visual Bias above). Try to get some news from newspapers, the radio, online, etc. instead of from just one medium.
  • Ideology. Instead of only watching the channels that are preaching to the proverbial choir, change the channel and see what the “other side” is talking about. If you don’t understand what the other side believes— and more importantly, why they believe it— it will be impossible to discuss important issues in a productive manner.
  • Complexity. The chart above mentions the complexity and analytical quality of a news outlet; obviously an article by The Economist is likely to go into much more depth about an issue than a NowThis Facebook video. Be sure to consume a little of each, because both have their place and purpose.

Above all, don’t believe everything you read online. (And yes, the irony here is duly noted.)

Jonah McKeown is a journalist based in Columbia, Missouri. 

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