Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
Deciphering Media Bias - A Basic Guide
(Part of The 'Random Minds' Media Literacy Project)
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.” - Mark Twain (wrongly attributed)
Created on: July 29, 2022 / Last Updated: August 1, 2022
It’s important to recognize that every piece of media coverage that’s released into the wild serves a purpose for someone—the goal is to recognize what it is. That’s one key step in becoming a more savvy media consumer. That isn’t to say that the purpose is always sinister—often it isn’t. It might be to inform, entertain, or influence—but there is always some goal, otherwise it wouldn’t be published.
This guide will cover some of the basics when it comes to considering the coverage that we all read day-to-day so that we may be able to better recognize bias and what might be missing in coverage—and when we might need to look elsewhere to get a more complete narrative. The more we can explore different types of publications and follow writers who are dedicated to diligence and transparency, the more likely we are to get a more accurate picture of the world and what is going on in it. That means that we can make better decisions, too.
This guide is a living document, which will be continuously updated with additional resources—some of which are sure to come from readers like you, so feel free to leave a comment below, anytime. Eventually, this will move to a permanent home of its own—a website, as part of the Random Minds Media Literacy Project.
So when you read an article, any article—or listen to a news story, consider: Why does it exist? Is to share information? Who benefits from that? Is it to entertain and therefore draw in viewers? What advertisers do they care about pleasing or retaining? Is it to persuade a particular demographic? Who benefits?
If the story is being portrayed as impartial or “news,” is it? Does it have an opinion? Does it use emotional language? Does it provide only a single perspective when it’s appropriate to provide multiple for a more complete perspective?
It is also important ensure that whatever outlet you’re reading is being vetted for a certain standard of quality. Are they an obscure outlet? If so, where are they getting their information? Are they citing their sources? Can you verify that the sources they are citing actually exist and have covered the story? (hey, ‘fake news’ really do exist!)
Here are some additional things to watch out for:
A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the cliche goes. So, given this, does the image chosen accurately represent the story? This is a good way to tell how trustworthy and unbiased a source is. When Joe Rogan was making constant headlines, most media outlets would run photos of him with buggy eyes and strange expressions. Does Joe Rogan not have any ‘normal’ photos? Of course he does. What they were doing was editorializing.
When the Trucker Convoy was going on in Canada, most mainstream outlets ran photos of swastikas and confederate flags, which, in reality, one would have been hard-pressed to find in a sea of regular Canadian flags…that presented a highly inaccurate narrative. Again, it showed a particular reluctance to cover the news without leaning towards editorializing.
When Spotify’s stock was going down a while back, in the midst of their controversy with Joe Rogan and several artists stating they are leaving the audio streamer if he is not dropped, many media outlets covered the story as if Rogan was to blame for the stock drop, conflating the two stories. However, what they had failed to mention is that the stock was already going down prior to things unfolding with Rogan. This is common practice. Unfortunately, other media outlets are quick to pick up on such stories as are social media illiterati.
It’s impossible for a journalist to know everything and a good journalist relies on sources and experts for stories. However, as much as this is an opportunity to provide real insight into an unfolding story or a subject matter, this is also where things can go terribly wrong. Often sources are chosen in a way that’s one-sided. Instead of presenting a nuanced perspective on something, only one point-of-view is often represented—this is very common and familiar. But beyond just the bias that we’re so familiar with, it’s important to recognize how experts are chosen for stories in the first place.
So here’s how they typically appear on the radar of a reporter:
They are pitched to a reporter by publicists/public relations experts
They are already familiar to a journalist through their existing network, which is why there is a tendency for certain people to be frequent “experts” over and over again.
A reporter may reach out to a source they’ve come across—either because they affirm a narrative they already have, or they are genuinely interested in their story
A reporter may put a “call out” for experts through a service like ProfNet or HARO where either the “expert” or their representative may pitch themselves to them and answer their query. Journalists often work on tight deadlines and will accept a quote from whoever best fits their query and answered in time.
Watch out for language like “experts believe” — who are these experts? How many were asked? How were they chosen? What are their credentials as they relate to this specific topic? Is there REALLY a consensus?
I recall a viral tweet going around from someone who had a “Dr” in front of their name. This was widely cited by media outlets, even. The tweet was on a medical matter. Only a little digging revealed that the “Dr” in question had expertise in archeology, not medicine.
Likewise, be aware of language like “people who are familiar with the matter” or other anonymous sourcing. There’s a time and a place for this. I’ve used anonymous sources myself when there was some potential repercussions for my sources for speaking out publicly. However, in those instances, the publications I had written for had strict editorial policies in place on this and I had verified each person’s identity. They were anonymous to me the reader but not to me, and anything they had stated was verifiable as well. Still, even then, as a reader, you are right to be more cautious.
There is a place for loaded, leading or emotive language, and that’s in the opinion or editorial section. Even then, the piece would likely be much stronger without it. But it is useful for you, the reader, because it helps you understand when the writer is trying to influence or manipulate you rather than inform. Essentially, when writing or commenting in that manner, the journalist is passing a judgement or making a statement rather than presenting facts that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions.
For example, House Bill 1557 was actually officially named the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, but I had to google the name because almost every mainstream media outlet had referred to it as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, implicitly suggesting what they thought of it with that alone. Whether a publication uses words like pro-choice or pro-abortion, gun rights or gun control, riot or protest, migrants or illegals, birthing person or woman—will say a lot too.
BIAS BY OMISSION
It is actually far more dangerous when the journalist presents facts in a way that appears to be neutral but by choosing to include some facts and exclude others paints a particularly inaccurate picture or narrative. It limits our understanding of what’s really going on.
Another type of omission that’s particularly common in today’s landscape is that certain media outlets will choose to simply not cover particular stories altogether rather than just omit facts or perspectives.
Similar to omission, story placement is another way of semi-omitting inconvenient narratives. You can learn a lot about a publication by observing where they place certain stories compared to others. What makes the front page? What gets buried? Are there any particularly big stories that has surprised you in their placement? (eg. NYT buried their coverage of the synagogue hostage situation not to long ago)
Look for media reports that as factual and specific as possible. A good reporter can’t guess at what someone is thinking or feeling. For example, watch out for statements like: “Joe felt foolish being left out of the deal…” or “Jake appeared to be angry” — neither is a statement of fact, but rather a highly subjective observation.
“There are three types of lies -- lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
Statistics can actually be a wonderful tool, but they are largely misused by journalists. I’ve actually had to take several courses on them and I’m grateful, but I suspect that most people writing stories have not. More importantly, journalists rarely get to read actual studies for two reasons: 1) The reports are expensive to access, and 2) It’s time consuming to go through properly. Most of the data used in article is sent out to journalists in easy-to-understand sound-bytes by PR departments or lobbyists and is then copied and circulated around. Most articles fail to even disclose things like sample sizes, standard deviations, medians, let alone any other key factors on how raw data was collected, what questions were asked, who volunteered to take part, how were they incentivized, how was diversity of respondents ensured, etc. As result, these statistics are often extraordinarily misleading and do more harm than good to our understanding.
Also, something to keep in mind: Why was the study commissioned in the first place? It costs money, so it’s fair to assume that there’s an interested party. Who is it? How do they benefit?
The sting and embarrassment of having made a reporting error early on in my career, and then having to issue a printed correction never left. Nowadays, most newspapers, if they even bother to put out a correction, do so online—in italics, often at the bottom of the page, once the original story had travelled halfway around the world and most people are no longer reading the original piece anyways.
A sign of a trustworthy publication is transparency and accountability. Are they quick to issue a correction? Do they do so on their own or after legal threat or public shaming? Do they put it out somewhere with sufficient visibility?
Now, imagine a world where a correction would be given as much space as the false story? Or at the very least, what if publications would proudly have a section on their front page where they would disclose the number of corrections they have had to issue this week, month, and year—with the goal of decreasing that number—along with a link to them. Holding themselves truly accountable to their readers. This is something I’d like to encourage and this is an eventual goal of Random Minds’ Media Literacy Project.
Headlines are designed to draw the reader in and give them a sense of what a story is about, but many headlines do far more than that. Rather, they misrepresent the story entirely. Unfortunately, many readers don’t make it past the headline—therefore the initial impression of the news is what stays behind, and, in the age of social media…spreads.
This guide will be a continuously updated living document. If you have tips to share, feel free to comment below.
Although I keep most posts open to the public, if you’d like to support this project or this Substack as it grows, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Got ideas for future posts or want to send feedback? Email me.
Who am I? I’m a writer with an overactive imagination and a random mind. Outside of Substack, you’ll find my work in publications such as Newsweek, WIRED, Variety, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire, Playboy, Mashable, CNN Travel, The Independent, and many others.
Here, you can expect to see little essays on topics ranging from self-censorship, how to have better conversations and word misappropriation to whimsical thoughts about losing imaginary friends and insomnia. Anything goes. Here, there’s no “left,” “right,” or even “middle”. Just random thoughts. And everyone’s welcome to be part of the conversation—in fact, it’s encouraged.