How to know if a news source is fair and balanced?

The media bias

In an earlier article titled “The Art of Bullshit” I attempted to list the most common methods of dishonest communication, often used by the propagandists to persuade the public. In that same piece I mentioned different biases such as one-sided selection of stories and the great Confirmation Bias from which no-one is completely safe.

Now I’d like to look a little deeper in to the news media bias and most importantly, start a new list, sort of how-to for evaluating the news source one is reading, or a to-do of what steps to take to recognise the bias or intentional dishonesty if there is any.

This article should be an ongoing thing that gets updated and made better as I learn more and get suggestions from others. If you have ideas for this, please comment!

Media bias is 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 term “media bias” implies a pervasive or widespread bias contravening the standards of journalism, rather than the perspective of an individual journalist or article. The direction and degree of media bias in various countries is widely disputed.

Practical limitations to media neutrality include the inability of journalists to report all available stories and facts, and the requirement that selected facts be linked into a coherent narrative. Government influence, including overt and covert censorship, biases the media in some countries, for example North Korea and Burma. Market forces that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers.

There are a number of national and international watchdog groups that report on bias in the media.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_bias

Hostile Media Effect

Sometimes the bias is in the eye of the beholder. We may see bias for reasons other than what the journalists actually write.

During the Lebanese civil war in 1982, Christian militias in Beirut massacred thousands of Palestinian refugees while Israeli solders stood by. In 1985, researchers showed television news coverage of the event to pro-Israeli and pro-Arab viewers. Both sides thought the coverage was biased against them.

This effect — where both sides feel that a neutral story is biased against them — has been replicated so many times, in so many different cultural settings, with so many types of media and stories, that it has its own name: hostile media effect. The same story can make everyone on all sides think the media is attacking them.

http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/06/how-do-you-tell-when-the-news-is-biased/

Analyse the news source

I find it safe to say that there is no such thing as completely balanced and unbiased news outlet. Every individual has their things they love or hate and this will influence their writing; both the content and the style.

Groups tend to pull in more people with similar intentions, interests and likes. Also conforming to the group consensus is usually encouraged and rewarded. The general direction of these collective likes and dislikes will have at least some influence on the coverage produced by the group in question.

This however does not mean that just about anything goes.

There are better and worse practices .

You, as a reader can analyse the news source and use your own judgement. You can, and should put more weight on information that comes from the “least biased” (in your assessment) and be even more sceptical than usual and more vigilant when dealing with a provider whom you have found to be clearly promoting one side’s agenda.

Just make sure you have good reasons for these judgements.

Conducting a simple media-analysis

Here is my suggestion on how to make a very basic analysis on the news source you want to understand better.

  • Copy the material below into your own file
  • Open the news source you want to investigate
  • Go through these points and scribble down your findings
  • At the end, write down your conclusions and comments about what you found

Collect the material

Coverage

Skim through the headlines and story summaries. Is there some obvious viewpoint being offered, story after story? Do you know without reading the whole article what the conclusion will be?

Now select a story (or two) to analyse.

Reporters

See who has written the story. Do you know something about this person and his/her affiliations?

The main headline

What is the main heading of the story? Does that tell what has happened or does it offer a conclusion? Does it leave you with a feeling of honesty or do you feel you are being guided to the “right” direction?

Content

List the main content of the article. What are the elements of the story? What is being told?

Claims made in the article

Write down a list of claims stated in the news article. Who made the claims; reporter or someone they interviewed?

Fact-checking

If you can, conduct a fact-check on the claims stated in the article. How do they hold up? Write after each claim: TRUE, FALSE or UNVERIFIED.

I know this one is a little tricky. You can not always check all claims accurately. Some claims will stay “open” and you have to move on without knowing.

sources

List the sources here.

Evaluate your findings

Viewpoint

Describe in your own words what you felt was the message in the article.

Was it written to inform you of an event that has taken place or was it written to make you love or hate someone or perhaps to make you subscribe to some idea? What was the article trying to make you think, feel or do, if it tried to do so at all?

Credibility

Evaluate here, again in your own words, the credibility you experienced.

How much credit would you put on the experts and sources cited in the story? Did the writer seem well-informed on the topic?

How did the fact-check go?

Were the claims made by the reporter or a person being interviewed? If they were made by a person who was interviewed, were these claims accepted without any challenge? If they were, was there a good reason to do so?

Did the article itself offer anything to back up the claims that were made?

Please be alert if the news source produces high quantity of wild-ass claims with no sources to back them up or using sources that are as eccentric as the claim itself.

Remember:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”
– Marcello Truzzi

and

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
– Christopher Hitchens

Balance

Were the sources of the story also advocates of the same viewpoint that the story was possibly trying to offer?

Were any of the proponents of an opposing view offered a chance to explain their side?

People

How were the people in the article treated? Was someone glorified? Was someone dismissed? Was someone ridiculed? Was someone vilified?

If proponents of an opposing view were included, were they treated with respect?

If proponents of an opposing view were included, were they given a fair chance to make their case?

Buzzwords

Did they use buzzwords to dazzle and impress you or was the language simple, understandable and straight-forward? (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buzzword)

Loaded language

List here the instances of loaded language you found.

Did they use words like “propaganda”, “fascism”, “corrupt”, “brainwashed”,  “lies”, etc without valid reason to justify the use of that word?

Example:

If you are writing an article about a person who promotes the political program of Partito Nazionale Fascista, created by Benito Mussolini, then you should use the word “Fascist” to describe this individual.

In almost any other case you should not.

These words and phrases are used to invoke an emotional response.

(see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loaded_language)

Loaded questions

Did they ask questions like “Have you already stopped beating your wife?”

These questions imply guilt (or virtue) and are dishonest.

Sometimes they are asked to upset the person interviewed, to make him/her say something that can be seen as incriminating. Example: “Are you a murderer?”

Did they leave such questions hanging in the air?

(see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loaded_question)

Virtue-words

List here all the virtue-words used in the article.

Were they connected to a specific person or an idea? To whom / what?

Name-calling

List here all the blame-words used in the article.

Were they connected to a specific person or an idea? To whom / what?

Illustration

Look at the pictures used in the story. Are they appropriate for the article? Are they there to inform and illustrate or underline a particular point?

Are they selected so that they make someone or something look threatening (in a way that is not justified)?

Use of statistics

Are statistics being used in the article? Are they valid? Are they relevant? Are they presented in a honest way?

Press-release check

Does the article appear to be copied directly from a press-release of some governmental or private organisation? If so, has the reporter done any work? Have they checked facts and background?

Style of writing

Evaluate the style of writing.

Is it informative and just-the-facts or were you being sold something?
Is it a voice in a civil conversation or dull confrontational ranting?
Is it intellectually stimulating and asking good questions or is it rather trying to offer simplistic, ready answers?

Was the writing competent?

Check your own bias

If you agreed with the article, was it because it offered convincing evidence from solid sources or was it because it was in line with your current beliefs? Was it easy and convenient for you to accept what was said? Why?

If you hated it, did you give it a chance or dismissed it right away?

Your conclusion

Write your conclusions and bring it all together. Answer at least this question: based on what you saw now, would you trust this news-source and recommend it to others?

further reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_bias

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_death

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_transparency

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_Consent

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_the_press

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_imperialism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_portrayal_of_the_2014_pro-Russian_unrest_in_Ukraine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_coverage_of_the_Arab–Israeli_conflict

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_of_Sweden#Journalist_bias

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._news_media_and_the_Vietnam_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech_by_country

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentration_of_media_ownership

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Editorial_independence

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journalistic_objectivity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journalism_ethics_and_standards

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_style

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