Who Watches the Watchdogs? Be Your Own Media Bias and ‘Fake’ News Analyst
The Best Armor Against Media Bias, Fake News, and Other Disinformation is Your Own Education and Ability to Identify It
MuniNet takes a look at why bias matters, the difference between bias, spin, and truly ‘fake’ news, and provides you with tools to identify bias on your own. Further, we introduce the idea that bias may be less a concern than ‘fairness’.
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 articles showing media bias, as well as 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, visualized above 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 highlighted four websites (there are certainly others) that can help you identify types of media bias, general logical fallacies, and how to spot 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.” The 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 – When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence. In the original concept, in other words, the method is objective, not the journalist. The impartial voice employed by many news organizations – that familiar, supposedly neutral style of newswriting – is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Without a discipline of verification, the impartial voice creates a veneer covering something hollow. Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in a form of deception. This damages the credibility of the craft by making it seem unprincipled, dishonest, and biased.
- Understanding Bias – What if journalists acknowledged that bias does exist, that it is built into the choices they make when deciding what to leave in and what to leave out? That bias is embedded in the culture and language of the society on which the journalist reports? The goal is not to eliminate bias, but to manage and acknowledge where it exists. Biases also can often cut both ways. Some examples:
- Being a crusader against social ills is generally good, but you can lose perspective.
- A bias toward official voices is necessary, but if it leaves out other voices it’s a problem.
- Being sensitive to sources is part of listening well but it can also mean that the journalist is writing for them rather than the public.
- Looking for the extraordinary, the man-bites-dog story, can also lead a journalist to distort what is really going on or is important.
- Subject: There is a bias built into the way journalists pick and cover stories. Certain subjects are routinely covered or ignored. Do some subjects or communities only appear when a crime occurs or when there is a special event or parade?
- Tools to Manage Bias – Periodically examine yourself for bias building up — understanding what your views are and why you have them is the best way to keep them under control. How might that be coloring your judgment?
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. Language frames an issue. Are asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean to Europe ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’? What defines a ‘mass shooting’ from a ‘terrorist attack’, and what biases get triggered when reading these words?
- Imbalanced reporting: Distorting news through disproportionate coverage. Giving both sides of an issue equal time implies both arguments hold equal merit. But what if nearly all experts in a given field have achieved consensus on an issue, while a few outliers hold on to discredited views? Is giving equal exposure to both sides being ‘objective’, or is it giving a distorted sense of legitimacy to a side that should be identified as fringe? While this is an issue of balance, the issue of prominence also comes into play here. Giving one scandal more coverage than another scandal implies the former is more severe or important, even if the greater reporting may only be an honest reflection of the first scandal being more complex, thus requiring greater explanation and context.
- Opinions disguised as news: Inappropriately injecting opinion or interpretation into coverage. This can be done within an article, where the journalist mixes conjecture and opinion in with factual reporting, without clearly defining or separating the two. It can also occur in the layout of newspapers, magazines, and websites when, rather than separating news sections from commentary and analysis sections, articles are separated by subject matter such as ‘economy’, ‘politics’, and ‘technology’. A media outlet may mix all their politics articles together and, even if the articles themselves are news-only or opinion pieces, their being lumped together may be confusing for the reader.
- Lack of context: Withholding a frame of reference for readers. While analysis, such as judging the merits of sides of a dispute, should remain in the opinion/commentary section, an knowledgeable reporter must provide context, whether it is differing perspectives that are relevant, or the historical series of events that led to a current issue. A very important aspect of this is providing context around statistics and measurements that are reported.
- Selective omission: Reporting certain events over others, or withholding key details. This is very similar to a lack of context. However, while a lack of context can be an error committed in an honest effort to report breaking news quickly, or a lack of thoroughness on the part of the reporter, selective omission is more purposeful. Selective omission, also known as ‘cherry-picking’ involves reporting true facts, but only those facts that support or bias or assertion.
- Using true facts to draw false conclusions: Infecting news with flawed logic. For example, drawing the conclusion that because one school district has much lower testing scores than another, the first school district must be filled with less intelligent students. The facts of the actual test scores may be accurately reported, but there are many other related factors that could be affecting test scores, from teacher quality, home support systems, materials and technology available to students, etc.
- Distortion of facts: Getting the facts wrong. This is especially true in today’s breaking news culture, where anyone can identify as a journalist and ‘report’ the news on Twitter or blogs. There is outright reporting wrong facts, and lacking in verification of reported facts through multiple sources.
- Lack of transparency: Failing to be open and accountable to readers. Especially important to report are conflicts of interest between the reporter, the publication, and the subjects of a story. Additionally, an over reliance on anonymous sources. Sometimes using anonymous sources is appropriate, when the only way to investigate a story is to collect accounts from sources who may be in delicate and dangerous situations. However, putting as much identifying information on the record as possible should be the goal, and readers should be skeptical when references like ‘sources familiar with the matter’ are used frequently.
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, with a somewhat humorous twist. 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. The inability, or disinclination, to disprove a claim does not render that claim valid, nor give it any credibility whatsoever. However, it is important to note that most claims can never be absolutely proven, and so we must assign value to any claim based on the available evidence. To dismiss something on the basis that it hasn’t been proven beyond all doubt is also fallacious reasoning. For example, if someone claims that the far side of the moon is inhabited by rabbits, the inability of anyone else to disprove the claim does not give it any credibility.
- Middle Ground: Saying that a compromise, or middle point, between two extremes must be the truth. Much of the time the truth does indeed lie between two extreme points, but this can bias our thinking: sometimes a thing is simply untrue and a compromise of it is also untrue. Half way between truth and a lie, is still a lie.
- Appeal to Authority: Making the argument that because an authority thinks or states something, it must therefore be true. It’s important to note that this fallacy should not be used to dismiss the claims of experts, or scientific consensus. Appeals to authority are not valid arguments, but nor is it reasonable to disregard the claims of experts who have a demonstrated depth of knowledge unless one has a similar level of understanding and/or access to empirical evidence. However it is, entirely possible that the opinion of a person or institution of authority is wrong; therefore the authority that such a person or institution holds does not have any intrinsic bearing upon whether their claims are true or not. This logical fallacy is particularly evident when a person in authority or their representative states that it is out of line to question the claims of the authority figure. If an authority figure has an expertise and is confident in the correctness of their claims, they should welcome vigorous questioning.
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. Knowing who and what to trust is just as if not more confusing than ever. One key takeaway from all this is that it may be fruitless to put in effort to fine a truly ‘objective’ media and news source, and may be misguided to believe such a source even exists. A key term that we should all consider alongside or in place of objectivity is ‘fairness’; whether a reporter or publication reports news or judges issues fairly, applying the same criteria to all sources and all sides. By honing your own skills as a media consumer, you can put trust in the most important source, the source that filters all information you receive; yourself.
by Jeffrey L Garceau