Who Watches the Watchdogs? Be Your Own Media Bias Analyst
The Best Armor Against Media Bias is Your Own Education
Bias is present to one degree or another in every media publication, and indeed every story one reads, or any video package or television news program one watches. However, while media bias is perhaps unlikely to directly inspire violent action, it nevertheless gives an incomplete understanding of an event, and breaks down and impedes effective communication. The best informed citizens challenge their own preconceptions, rather than indulge them. You are not betraying your values by questioning them. Rather, you are giving them the attention and respect they deserve.
It is impossible to completely remove oneself from the influences of their environment, beliefs, and values, whether a journalist or a media consumer. Some publications certainly do a better job than others, and people trust certain news sources over other publications. A consumer can rely on fact checkers and media watchdogs, but the best way to know what is real and what is fake is to be able to identify media bias and even outright dishonesty and inconsistency on one’s own. Understanding how journalists conceptualize objectivity, and the most common types of bias, will allow you to identify it while reading news on your own, rather than relying on outside sources to verify objectivity for you. It will also allow you to have a more critical ear when politicians and other public officials may try to spin or distort an event or a policy, and better allow to you hold them accountable.
If you are a person at all tuned in to the goings on of the world, then you likely are at least familiar with the phrase ‘fake news’, even if you are not quite sure how fake news is defined. Fake news is in many ways simply the technological extension of what used to be ‘urban legends’ and ‘chain letters’, which evolved into ‘chain emails’ and satire misconstrued as reality. It is but a more extreme form of media bias, going beyond ‘spin’ into outright lying. Some are horrifying for individuals, like a recent death hoax of MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, but are relatively benign to society at large. Other fake news stories have led to potentially physically dangerous encounters. Clearly, fake news is something with which individuals should be concerned.
FactCheckers and Watchdogs
MuniNet cautions against an over reliance on fact checkers and watchdogs, if one is concerned with objective news. Some, like FactCheck.org, do a good job of verifying the accuracy of claims. For example, they debunked the claim that genetically modified mosquitoes caused the recent Zika outbreak. However, because of their thoroughness, FactCheck and others like it only cover a relatively limited number of items compared to the flood of fake news on social media and forwarded via email. Many ‘media watchdogs’, are looking at a particular type of media bias. FAIR.org, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, and AIM.org, Accuracy In Media, look out for bias that only comes from one side of the political spectrum. Both show up among the top internet search results for ‘media watchdog’ and both of these organizations claim to some degree to bring their viewers ‘the truth’. In a way they do. However, it is one narrow slice of the truth. Neither provide a good basis for objective journalism. Rather, both seem to have a political ax to grind.
Some scholars and even concerned citizens have attempted to create scales and criteria for objectivity of popular news sources. Luke Dzwonkowski of Michigan developed a very interesting scale, based on a a rigorous set of criteria, such as avoiding sites that have their bias in the name of the publication or website, like Democratic Underground, or Conservative Review, as well as avoiding sites and stories that openly mock and insult opposing viewpoints. Of course, Mr. Dzwonkowski’s scale is not the be-all-end-all of this debate. Many readers and this author may believe certain news outlets should be shifted a bit to the left or the right, or towards the center, but the overall layout of publications relative to each other, such as having The Economist, USA Today, and C-SPAN near the center, MSNBC on the far left, and Fox News on the far right, is a good starting point for such a conversation. More on the methodology behind this chart can be found here. However, even though this scale is well developed, enhancing your own skill set in identifying bias and fake news remains a citizen consumer’s best defense.
Becoming Your Own Watchdog
MuniNet has identified four websites (there are certainly others) that can help you identify types of media bias, general logical fallacies, and how to identify fake news. We encourage readers to review the links to these sites below, as they go into greater detail on all of these subjects. All help you to better arm yourselves in the fight for truth and objectivity.
American Press Institute “Bias and Objectivity“ – The American Press Institute was founded in 1946 to “help the news industry fulfill the purpose of the First Amendment – to sustain a free press in the public interest.” Their Bias and Objectivity section on their website addresses bias in three ways, from the perspective of a journalist trying to remain objective. Those three categories are”
- The Lost Meaning of Objectivity
- Understanding Bias
- Tools to Manage Bias
HonestReporting.com “The Eight Categories of Media Bias” – Honest Reporting is a website dedicated to “Defending Israel from Media Bias.” They admit that they take a pro-Israel bias in their own work. However, they still offer a really good analysis how bias appears in the media from a consumer perspective.The eight categories are:
- Misleading definitions: Prejudicing readers through language.
- Imbalanced reporting: Distorting news through disproportionate coverage.
- Opinions disguised as news: Inappropriately injecting opinion or interpretation into coverage.
- Lack of context: Withholding a frame of reference for readers.
- Selective omission: Reporting certain events over others, or withholding key details.
- Using true facts to draw false conclusions: Infecting news with flawed logic.
- Distortion of facts: Getting the facts wrong.
- Lack of transparency: Failing to be open and accountable to readers.
FactCheck.org “How to Spot Fake News” – Fact Check offers a helpful set of criteria to identify when something goes beyond a biased interpretation or representation of events, and goes after spotting things that are completely made up and false:
- Check the source. One common example they highlight is people citing abcnews.com.co, which disguises itself as the actual abcnews.com.
- Read beyond the headline. Often times, fake news has a semi-believable headline, but the body of the story reveals things that anyone would question.
- Check the author. FactCheck cites one article they reviewed that was written by a ‘doctor’ who won ‘fourteen Peabody awards’ and ‘a handlful of Pulitzer Prizes’. It is unlikely such an illustrious author wouldn’t be immediately known to a wide range of people.
- What’s the support? Fake news will put hyperlinks into their articles to present an image of legitimacy. However, the links often do not match up with what the article says it does. They count on readers not actually clicking the links.
- Check the date. Sometimes fake news will take a real event from the past, but say it happened recently and attribute recent news to its cause. For example, FactCheck cites an article claiming Donald Trump’s election influenced a car manufacturer to shift jobs to the U.S. from overseas. They link to a real article about a real event where the manufacturer moved operations to the U.S., but the article was from 2015, over a year before Trump was elected.
- Is this some kind of joke? It is easy to mistake satire sites as real news. Sometimes satire columns may even be published in news sources that otherwise do real journalism.
- Check your biases. Quite simply, if you see something overwhelmingly positive about someone you like or overwhelmingly negative about someone you don’t like, you should question whether it is true.
- Consult the experts. When you just don’t have the time, then you can rely on fact-checkers like FactCheck!
YourLogicalFallacyIs.com – This entire website is dedicated to educating the public on twenty-four different types of common flaws in logic. Visit them for a list of all twenty four, with analysis and examples of how to identify and counter these fallacies. A few of our favorites are:
- Burden of Proof: Saying that the burden of proof lies not with the person making the claim, but with someone else to disprove.
- Middle Ground: Saying that a compromise, or middle point, between two extremes must be the truth.
- Appeal to Nature: Making the argument that because something is ‘natural’ it is therefore valid, justified, inevitable, good, or ideal.
Learning the information and tools given in these resources can greatly assist you in identifying fake news, and see bias in the media and everyday life. Make yourself your own watchdog against misinformation.
by Jeffrey L Garceau