media update’s Emma Beavon is here to help you sort through the confusion, ensuring you understand and can identify media bias. 

Bias in the mainstream media is a real thing and has been around since the birth of news. But the topic has been put in the spotlight with the rise of fake news since the 2016 US presidential elections. Politicians shout ‘fake news’ and ‘media bias’ whenever a publication reports something negative about that person.

Because the cries of ‘media bias’ are so common these days, it can be difficult to identify real media bias.

What is media bias? 

Media bias is defined as “the bias, or perceived bias, of journalists and news producers within the mass media in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered.”

The topic of media bias has been a feature of the publishing industry since the invention of the printing press, which, during war, was used as a mechanism for propaganda — a kind of media bias. 

The most commonly discussed forms of bias within the media occur when outlets support or attack specific political parties, candidates or ideologies. 

In recent times, Donald Trump has been the most vocal politician about media bias. He has said many times that the liberal media are “fake news” and their coverage of him is biased against him. But he has failed to mention that certain conservative news outlets have been openly biased towards him, such as Fox News, which Trump openly endorses. 

Is media bias bad?  

Most people distrust the media, and it’s easy to understand why considering the amount of media stories that have later been proved to be false or filled with misinformation. 

It is important to question things you’re told instead of blindly believing everything the media tells you. The reason for this is because being biased is a human quality and, because journalists are human, there will always be some level of bias as their opinions and views can colour their interpretations of a story. Journalists, however, do try to be objective, which is why ‘neutral’ media outlets will get both sides of the story. But, there is no such thing as a completely neutral journalist or media outlet. 

For this reason, media bias is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as a journalist’s coverage is based on facts and is honest. However, media bias is dangerous when it spreads misinformation and lies in order to benefit or disadvantage a political party, candidate or ideology. 

Nathan Robinson, a Guardian columnist, says that he believes media bias is okay — as long as it’s honest. He continues to say that in order to regain trust within the public, media outlets must embrace bias.

“Not embracing untruthfulness, but admitting your [political views] so that both writer and audience can be critical.”

Media bias is not going anywhere, so it is important for the public to be able to identify it so that they can draw their own conclusions and opinions based on the facts rather than the bias. 

How to identify media bias 

Here are some questions to ask yourself about media coverage in order to identify if the story is biased:

1. Who are the sources? 
The media is over-reliant on ‘official’ sources; this usually consists of people who head up businesses, think tanks or government offices. To be fair and accurate, media outlets should portray both sides of the story by getting the opinions of people from opposite sides of the argument.  

However, when a media outlet is blatantly biased, it will not try to convey both sides of the story. They will instead get two or more people on the same side to voice their opinions to slant the argument. Some media outlets will get people from two opposing sides but will slant the questions in favour of the person that the media outlet’s values or opinions align with. 

To portray issues fairly and accurately, the media must broaden their spectrum of sources. Otherwise, they become megaphones and propaganda machines for those in power. 

What you can do to identify the bias is:
  • Count the number of corporate and government sources against the number of progressive voices, experts within the community, female and minority voices. 
  • Identify which side of the argument each interviewee falls on, if the majority of interviewees fall on the same side it means the media outlet is slanting to one side.

2. Whose point of view is the story covered from?
Political coverage in the media often focuses on politicians or corporate executives rather than those who will be directly affected by these issues. The same goes for coverage of economic news, which will look at the impact of the news on stockholders and business owners rather than the workers or the consumers who will be impacted. 
Media bias becomes clear when you see a lack of diversity in the focus of the story.
3. Is there a lack of diversity?
Look at the race, gender, religion and sexual orientation of those who are frequently focussed on in a media outlet’s coverage. Also look at how many people in decision-making positions are people of colour, female, different religions or part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

To fairly represent the different communities in our society, media outlets should have members of those communities in decision-making positions.

Many media outlets are moving to ensure more diversity in order to create a more fair and accurate news environment. 

For example, the United Kingdom’s Presspad has started a campaign called #DiversifyTheMedia to bring awareness to the lack of diversity within the British media. 

It is also raising funds to help aspiring journalists from minority or poor backgrounds to get internships and work experience with established journalists. This exposure will allow them to break into the industry and bring in more diversity. 

4. Are stereotypes prominent in the coverage? 
Stereotypes can skew the coverage of a story, especially when the story is about minorities. For example, the coverage of Muslims as being terrorists or feminists being violent, man-haters. This type of media coverage perpetuates these damaging and untrue stereotypes and can often be used to skew coverage towards politicians. 

Additionally, illegal immigrants have been given the stereotype of being criminals because it benefitted certain politicians' policies to close their country’s borders and tighten policies on immigration. 

5. Is the language loaded? 
Language plays a very important role in shaping the opinions of the public. Therefore, using emotive or ‘loaded’ language can be a sign of media bias. These loaded words often have a negative emotion attached to it. This means that there will be a bigger reaction to the news story, which can skew some of the public's opinions and views.  

For example, ‘radicals’ is a very loaded word that is often used in reference to protesters.

6. Do the headlines match the content of the story?
Journalists usually don’t write the headlines of the story, it is usually their editors that decide on a headline. Because many people won’t actually read the article and will instead just skim the headlines, misleading headlines have a significant impact on the public reaction to a news story. This is because headlines don’t have all the information and therefore can mislead people into assuming the story’s facts.

What are your thoughts on media bias within the news industry? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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*Image courtesy of Vecteezy