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HT07: Is a news article biased?

by on 2014/09/02

In a highly connected world, information is being produced continuously and made available in unprecedented quantities. As researchers, we see information being produced in primary sources – papers in rapidly growing numbers of journals (to the point that even experts in narrowly defined areas may sometimes find it hard to keep up with all that is being said); secondary sources – commentary in traditional and new media (which comes with its own peculiarities, such as that social media can very quickly become ‘echo chambers’); and eventually in policy and strategy documents that aggregate or interpret such sources.

In such a world, the media plays a powerful role in focusing our attention on specific issues and more generally in organizing this information. What is said and how it is presented has tremendous power in shaping discourse. With such power comes the question of whether it is being used fairly.

Part 7: Is a news article biased? Is the entire news outlet biased? Why might they be biased and how can we tell?

As we have been discussing in our  How to “Research the Headlines” guides, there are a few features one could watch for, to get a sense of whether an article may be biased.

Does the article draw on a broad spectrum of sources? One of the features of a well written scientific paper, especially one that has been rigorously peer reviewed, is that claims are placed in the context of the assumptions delimiting the hypotheses. It is very easy for such caveats to be omitted by the time these claims make their way into the media article, if only because not all technical detail is easily translated for lay audiences. A way for news articles to avoid bias in translating the paper to the news article, is to diversify their sources – to solicit commentary from scientists who approach the issue from different perspectives, to talk to men and women, to ask the scientist investigating an issue as well as an outside person who is affected by that issue and may have a direct stake in that issue, etc. We looked at some of these issues in more detail in Parts 2 and 3 of our  How to “Research the Headlines” guide.

Another symptom of bias is loaded language. While this is most easy to pick up in articles regarding political issues, e.g., “racial preference” versus “affirmative action”, this can be quite prevalent in scientific articles as well. When coupled with unchallenged assumptions, unwarranted conclusions may easily be implied. For instance, an article about the effect of physical activity on long term mental health could draw unwarranted conclusions regarding ethnic groups by selectively reporting on baseline statistics regarding activity or access to facilities.

Bias is not restricted to individual articles. Sometimes, entire outlets may be biased. The term media bias implies a pervasive or widespread bias contravening the standards of journalism, rather than the perspective of an individual journalist or article.

This kind of bias manifests itself in many ways. A news outlet may be biased not just in the way it reports any single article, but in what news items it chooses to report in the first place. For instance, an outlet with strong leanings in favour of an industry may simply ignore news about small problems in that sector, or may disproportionately report problems relating to alternative industries or technologies. Sometimes, the bias may be as subtle as placement – stories of a certain kind being given front page status while other equally significant stories are relegated to small sections in the middle.

A more interesting phenomenon regarding media bias is in the way apparent efforts to correct the bias may themselves be biased. For instance, point/counterpoint formats are often used in order to hear both sides of an issue. However, this only works when the persons representing the different sides have been carefully selected. Moreover, the format can easily be used to create doubt regarding the legitimacy of an otherwise well-established point, by introducing a not very credible source whose only purpose is to give the appearance of doubt. So, introducing ‘balance’ into the reporting, as discussed above,  may not always benefit the reader.

Ultimately, bias is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. This will always be so, owing to the human tendency to suffer from what psychologists call confirmation bias – a propensity to believe the affirmative more than the negative. When a news story seems to fit with our own prior beliefs, we may be less inclined to criticize it. This feature of our subconscious is the main reason why we should all strive consciously to ask questions such as the ones above to test the rigour of any news article we encounter.

This How to “Research the Headlines” was brought to you by Subramanian Ramamoorthy. Access all of the How to “Research the Headlines” guides here.

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