Media Bias

This guide will help you recognize and understand media bias. According to a 2020 report from the Gallup and Knight Foundation, the vast majority of Americans believe the media is vital to democracy but half think it is very biased. In another study, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism states that "the relentless attacks and polarised politics appear to be exacerbating already low levels of media trust. Some of the most strongly distrusted news brands (Fox/CNN) are also the most viewed on television and online."

  • What is Media Bias?
  • Check Your Own Bias
  • Filter Bubbles
  • Spot Media Bias
  • Media Watchdogs

Media bias occurs when journalists or news organizations allow their own opinions to affect the news that they report and the way that they report it.

"According to some critics, the media is capable of employing an elaborate and sophisticated array of techniques that allows reporters and media owners to slant news stories in favor of particular groups or interests. At its most blatant, intentional bias is similar to intentional lying and censorship, but bias is often subtler and thus less detectable. In contrast, many journalists argue that true objectivity is impossible, and that while bias can indeed influence the presentation of facts, biased media is not created with harmful intent. Journalists holding the view that some degree of bias is inevitable aim to limit rather than eliminate bias and to present as balanced a view as possible." - Michael Alliprandi and Simone Isadora Flynn. Media Bias: An Overview. 28 Sep. 2018. Points of View Reference Center.

What are some types of bias?

The News Literacy Project identifies five types of bias:

  • Partisan
    A type of bias in which a journalist’s political views affect news coverage.
  • Demographic
    A type of bias in which race, gender, ethnicity or other factors — such as culture or economic class — affect news coverage.
  • Corporate
    A type of bias in which the business or advertising interests of a news outlet, or its parent company, influence how — or even whether — a story is reported.
  • "Big story"
    A type of bias in which journalists’ perceptions of an event or development as a major, important story can cause them to miss key details and misrepresent key facts.
  • Neutrality
    A type of bias in which a journalist or news outlet tries so hard to avoid appearing biased to anyone that the coverage actually misrepresents the facts.

Forms of media bias

  • Bias by story selection
    Bias by story selection occurs when a news outlet only runs stories that reflect a particular point of view.
  • Bias by omission
    A news story might present only one side of a story and omit facts or other details that support a different viewpoint. For instance, a newscaster might only interview liberal commentators or a website might only quote conservative sources.
  • Bias by source selection
    An article or news story might interview or  reference more sources that support one view over another.
  • Bias by commission
    Bias by commission occurs when a news outlet or reporter passes along assumptions that tend to support one point of view or political party. Examples include stating that "slashes in social spending caused increased infant mortality and homelessness" or repeating unproven conspiracy theories involving a politician.
  • Bias by placement or layout
    A news editor can promote certain stories by featuring them prominently (on the front page or at the top of a website) while “burying” other stories that reflect another point of view. Television or radio stations might report the “favored” stories first and the less favored later in the broadcast.
  • Bias by word choice or tone
    The word choices a journalist makes or the tone a newscaster adopts can manipulate the public’s reaction to a news story. Loaded or sensational words can elicit a positive or negative emotional response. Examples include choosing the word infanticide over abortion or anti-choice over pro-life, or using the word gloat to describe a politician's response to a news story.
  • Bias by labeling
    Labeling occurs when positive or negative labels are assigned to one group but not another (for example, "extreme right" or "far-left").
  • Bias by image selection
    Flattering or unflattering photographs, images, or camera angles can also influence the public’s perception of a person or event. The images an editor or producer selects might reflect a bias.

Want more information?

The following websites discuss additional forms of media bias:

Definitions of media bias from Understanding Bias (News Literacy Project).

 

Your own biases can affect how you respond to news stories. For example, some people might dismiss a news story as "media bias" or "fake news" simply because they disagree with it, regardless of the story's accuracy.

"Our own perspectives, values and beliefs may lead us to assume that bias exists, especially if we have a strong opinion about the topic being reported on. This can result in confirmation bias (the tendency to quickly embrace information that affirms what we already think and feel) and to unfairly dismiss or criticize information that complicates or contradicts those beliefs and perspectives. Because biases are baked into how we see and understand the world, we often fail to consider them when seeking or evaluating information. We may also perceive bias only in reporting that disagrees with our beliefs or opinions." - News Literacy Project.

Types of Personal Biases

Three types of bias can influence how you approach and evaluate news and other information:

  • Explicit bias
    Explicit bias refers to attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) that we consciously or deliberately hold and express about a person or group. Explicit and implicit biases can sometimes contradict each other.
  • Implicit bias
    Implicit bias includes attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) about other people, ideas, issues, or institutions that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control, which affect our opinions and behavior. Everyone has implicit biases—even people who try to remain objective (e.g., judges and journalists)—that they have developed over a lifetime. However, people can work to combat and change these biases.
  • Confirmation bias
    Confirmation bias, or the selective collection of evidence, is our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses. Therefore, confirmation bias is both affected by and feeds our implicit biases. It can be most entrenched around beliefs and ideas that we are strongly attached to or that provoke a strong emotional response.

Learn more

Quoted sources: Understanding Bias (News Literacy Project) (confirmation bias quotation) and Confirmation and Other Biases (Facing History and Ourselves) (definitions of personal biases).

 

Do you only get your news from sources that agree with you? If the answer is yes, you may be in a filter bubble!

What is a filter bubble?

  • Your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what's in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But the thing is that you don't decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don't actually see what gets edited out (Eli Pariser).
  • The intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption (Technopedia).
  • A situation where news that we dislike or disagree with is automatically filtered out and this might have the effect of narrowing what we know (Richard Fletcher).

The internet allows you to personalize your online experience. You can choose your Facebook friends, the Twitter accounts you follow, the web sites you visit, and the news feeds you subscribe to, just as you select the print media you read or the TV programs you watch.

But in addition to this self-selected personalization, search engines and social media often employ search algorithms to customize their search results for each user. Instead of giving you the most relevant results, some sites try to predict what you are most likely to click on based on your location, search history, demographics, or interests. This behind-the-scenes pre-selected personalization can create an echo chamber or "filter bubble" (a phrase first coined by Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think).

The extent to which filter bubbles actually influence online news consumption is open to debate (see Alternative Views below). But it's possible that your online viewing habits limit your exposure to different points of view and weaken your ability to avoid media bias.

Learn more about filter bubbles

Alternative Views

The best way to determine the accuracy of a news story is to consult multiple sources, including those that challenge your personal biases or pop your filter bubble. If you typically get your news from outlets on one side of the fence, make sure you expose yourself to news media on the other side as well

“In light of the polarized media and the plethora of venues for news, we consumers need to be more savvy about how we get our information. Ideally, each of us should reach beyond our own echo chambers and seek news from a variety of media outlets and perspectives. We should be wary of facts and information that we receive from biased sources, and we should verify that information through other reliable sources.” - Larry Atkins. Skewed: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Media Bias. Prometheus, 2016.

When trying to spot media bias, ask yourself these questions:

  • What kind of content is it?
    Is it a news story? An opinion piece? Advertising? Who produced the content and where does it get its funding? Do all the articles have a partisan slant?
    “Knowing what you are looking at is the first step to figuring out what you can believe.”
  • Who and what are the sources and why should you believe them?
    Is the source given? Is the source associated with a political party or special interest group that might indicate a bias?
    “The key question is, how do they know? If it’s not clear, you should be more skeptical.”
  • What’s the evidence and how was it vetted?
    What evidence do the sources offer as proof? Was it verified? Is the source a document? An eyewitness? Or is it hearsay, second-hand, or speculation?
    “Trust the material that offers more evidence, is more specific and more transparent about the proof being offered.”
  • Is the main point of the piece proven by the evidence?
    Did the evidence justify the conclusion or main point of the story? Or can the same evidence be used to draw a different interpretation?
    “We should expect enough evidence to prove the case. We shouldn’t just take someone’s word. The more evidence the better."
  • What’s missing?
    Was there a topic or point you didn’t understand? Did the story leave out important information or fail to explain it clearly?
    “The point of any news content is not just to tell you something. It should be to create understanding and also to help you to react or take action.”

For a more detailed discussion of these tips, see Six Questions That Will Tell You What Media to Trust (Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute). You should also consult Michael A. Caulfield's What Makes a Trustworthy News Source? for another overview.

The following websites will help you identify biased news stories:

  • AllSides - "Exposes bias and provides multiple angles on the same story so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant."
  • Media Bias/Fact Check - "An independent online media outlet dedicated to educating the public on media bias and deceptive news practices."
  • Project Censored - "The news that didn't make the news."
  • PundiFact - "Dedicated to checking the accuracy of claims by pundits, columnists, bloggers, political analysts, the hosts and guests of talk shows, and other members of the media."

Organizations monitoring conservative media bias:

  • Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) - "Works to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints."
  • Media Matters for America - "A progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media."

Organizations monitoring liberal media bias:

  • Accuracy in Media (AIM) - "Uses citizen activism and investigative journalism to expose media bias, corruption, and public policy failings."
  • Media Research Center (MRC) - "Works to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media."

Is your favorite news source left, right or center?

For a journalist's perspective on efforts to measure media bias, see We Can Probably Measure Media Bias. But Do We Want To? (Tamar Wilner, Columbia Journalism Review, 9 Jan. 2018).