12 Tips to Detect Bias in the Media During Election

nj election: Political bias is when a reporter, news organization, or TV show slants or skews facts in order to make their personal political position look more attractive. It can take many forms, from ignoring contradictory evidence, asking unbalanced questions, or cleverly framing facts and stories to change the public perception.  Bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as bias is impossible to fully escape — we’re only human! What is more important than eliminating bias, however, is learning how to detect it, helping you get a more fair and balanced perspective whenever you watch the news.

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1. Consider what points of view are represented and which are not. Journalism is not about taking sides — it is about showcasing all sides. Neglecting one of them is a form of bias, and one of the most common. Without naming names, there were several key news shows in the summer of 2014 that have had talks about “The State of Race in America” with all-white panels. At the end of the day, enormous, important perspectives of the story were left out, which leaves viewers with a biased idea of the issue. Other examples include:

  • When interviewing voters, what is the range of ages, genders, and races?
  • When asking questions to multiple guests (like a liberal guest “against” a conservative one), do the questions seem balanced? Who gets more speaking time?
  • What other groups of people are involved in the story? For example, in a segment on rent control, you would expect economic analysts, landlords, renters, supervisors, and local politicians to all have valuable opinions. But so, too, might hotel and restaurant owners, activist groups, and city planners.

2. Keep an eye out for broad generalizations used to sway opinion. This is a popular punditry trick — to use colloquialisms to hide a lack of facts. The best way to find this bias is to note when people switch to personal anecdotes or far-reaching claims like, “everyone knows unemployed people who refuses to get a job” or, “the entire mainstream media is a pawn of Donald Trump.” Neither of these points are actual facts — but they are masquerading as facts to change your mind. Beware for claims, like those above, that are impossible to actually prove.

  • How does word-choice impact these discussions? For example, think of the difference between calling someone “scrawny” and calling someone “thin.” Which points to positive bias, and which points to negative?

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3. Consider how facts are framed or worded to influence opinion. If a newscaster said that “1 in every 100 users of this product developed cancer,” you might come up with a very different interpretation than “this product caused cancer in only 1% of users.” Here’s the thing — they are the same exact statistic. Whenever you’re given a number, ask yourself what the base mathematical concept is to weed through the spin.

  • A lot of times, simply invert the stat to get a new perspective. Yes, someone can say “10% of Americans kids hate their parents.” But you could also write a totally opposing story saying “90% of American kids love their parents.” Both tell very different tales with the same stat.
  • What order do you get the facts in? Which ones are elaborated on and which ones ignored? For example, “1 in 3 people prefer orange juice” tells you that OJ is popular. But that doesn’t mean anything if they don’t tell you what they prefer it to, or what the other 2 people prefer.

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4. Take any study, statistic, or figure with a grain of salt until you can verify it with others. This is increasingly notable with scientific studies and polls, which many news channels repeat despite deep, obvious flaws in the study methods. For example, the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama quite clearly pointed to an Obama victory. But there was a last minute rash of polls saying Romney would win, which made the race much more “dramatic.” The only problem? Every one of these last-minute studies neglected to properly count for the African-American vote, assuming that blacks wouldn’t vote as heavily as 2008. As such, the weeks before the election paraded around a series of unreliable studies.

  • This is another place where sites like Snopes, FactChecker.org, and Politifact can help you cut through the bias with minimal research.
  • Sites like FiveThirtyEight make their watching over studies and polls. Many sites even “judge” polls, letting you know what historical biases they might have.

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5. Ask yourself if you agree with underlying assumptions before you follow along with the argument. This happened over and over again after the 2007 recession. Half of the people on TV said America was recovering wonderfully, and thus we should keep up the same policies. Half of them said America was not recovering, and in danger of another crash. Thus, when journalists ran stories about “successful new programs,” or “failing old policies,” it was impossible to know what was true without asking yourself about the underlying economy — is America actually recovering or not? Simply put, don’t just trust the premises laid out before you just because a newscasters says it. Bias can creep in before the piece actually starts!

  • MSNBC has a well-documented leaning to the left, but that doesn’t mean every journalist and reporter on the screen is a liberal. You need to evaluate bias on a case by case basis.

6. Browse a news company’s headlines to get an idea of their bias. In a world with thousands of blogs and news sites competing for your attention, headlines have become like commercials: loud, brief, and twisted to grab your attention. As such, they often color your reading of the article before you even get to it, or give people that don’t read the story a biased impression. A headline like “Politician X Votes No on Women’s Pay Raises!” might seem pretty damning at first. But, say, for example, that those pay raises also came at the cost of eliminating maternity leave. Because they are so short, headlines are implicitly biased. But that also makes them a good test for news sites:

  • Do a site’s headlines keep attacking the same party? You can bet they are biased towards the other.
  • Are wars and battles framed as tragedies or victories? When one side wins a battle or makes an advance, is it treated as good news or bad?
  • What stories appear on the front page, and which are shuffled to the bottom or back?
  • Do they cover any stories other sites miss, or skip any stories that other sites write about? Can you see why?

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7. Understand the two general schools of political thought in America. Broadly speaking, Americans tend to be right-leaning (considered “conservative”) or left-leaning (“liberal”), and most of our biases are placed into one of these two boxes. Of course, real people and reporters can fall anywhere on this spectrum, but the following guidelines should broadly outline the two types of bias:

  • Conservative Bias: Big government intrudes on life of people and businesses, strong moral/social values keep America strong; a large military presence is crucial; private business is key to economic growth
  • Liberal Bias: Government programs are essential to create equality; the government shouldn’t interfere with social or moral values; military is key, but diplomacy is king; private business must be regulated for success.

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8. Note your own political leanings and biases. Again, having bias is not a bad thing in the abstract — if you didn’t have a preference for certain ideas, policies, and political movements, how would you ever vote? All human beings have certain biases and preferences — what is important is that you know what those personal biases are. If you are unsure, go online and try a few “Political Bias Quizzes” or “Where Do I Stand” websites, which offer multiple choices tests that give you a broad idea of where you stand politically.

  • What are your go-to news sources? What sorts of stories grab you the most, or feel the most important?
  • Do you normally lean towards Republicans, Democrats, or neither? Have you shifted over your life or stayed relatively consistent with one party?
  • How would you define yourself politically, or how would you like to be defined by other people?

9. Regularly check into professional political fact-checkers to find biases in statements and policies. Especially in election season, facts and figures will get tossed around, contradicted, retracted, edited, and forgotten in a matter of days. Sites like Politfact.com or FactChecker.org are key places to detect when politicians are spinning a story or statistic to be more favorable than it really is.

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10. Seek out stories that intentionally conflict with your normal viewpoints. Neither political party or ideology has a monopoly on important, powerful thinkers. No matter your personal preference, you can always benefit by listening to the other side. It is also a great way to reveal your own biases, as MSNBC and Fox News may cover the same story in completely different ways.

  • Try aggregate news sites, like Google News, Real Clear Politics, or Politico, that tend to showcase many articles from many sites, instead of always checking into the same stations.
  • Watch another news channel here and there, even one you “hate.” Chances are good you’ll be exposed to some new stories you hadn’t heard otherwise, even if you disagree with them.

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11. Identify conflicts of interest and use them to weight a story’s validity. There was a study a few weeks ago that said driving dehydrated was worse than driving drunk. The problem? This study was funded completely by water and non-alcoholic beverage seller Coca-Cola, and they tested less than 20 writers. More obviously, a campaign staffer for Bernie Sanders is probably not the place to go for unbiased Democratic Primary news. Remember — bias isn’t all bad, it just needs to be balanced. Identifying the conflicts of interests can help your judge information more successfully. The Bernie staffer has valid points, but you need to remember that he/she has a vested interest in spinning them in a pro-Bernie way. Listen to a Hillary Clinton staffer, too, even if you disagree.

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12. Search for citations, especially for particularly large or aggressive points. If you see a number, fact, or attack on another politician or group, make sure the journalist or reporter backs it up. They should at least link to another article, and provide the studies and statistics they pull their facts from. Any blog post, essay, news piece, or speech that doesn’t back up its facts should be considered highly suspicious and likely biased.

  • Follow up on studies that seem “too good to be true.” Quite often the story a pundit tells based on a study is very different from the one the statisticians or scientists tried to tell.
  • Do all the sources come from sites with similar political leanings (likely biased) or do the citations come from a diverse pool of places (likely less biased)?
  • Practice makes perfect. The more news you read, from a wide range of sources, the easier it will be to recognize biases.
    • Bias does not make someone’s point invalid. Rather, it points to places you still need to fill in your knowledge.

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