How to Identify Bias
When reporter John Stossel announced in 2009 that he was leaving ABC for Fox News, some readers complained about his “bias.” Stossel replied: “Every reporter has political beliefs. The difference is that I am upfront about mine.”
Stossel, who characterizes himself as a libertarian, left a mainstream television network for another that aims its programming at a conservative audience. His reply to the charge of bias marked an honesty that many people feel is lacking in the mainstream news media.
Is Media Bias Real?
Is media bias real? There have been countless studies affirming and denying bias in the media. An election year is a good time to help students learn to analyze the media for bias—and then let them draw their own conclusions.
Where Does Bias Come From?
Several factors can lead to bias, such as religion, geography, or nationality. Sometimes, a news source engages in bias simply by programming for a large group that shares certain qualities. For example, is an American business magazine biased if it runs all its stories in English and encourages the free market system?
The use of language also illustrates certain points of view. Ask your students to think about the terms insurgents, freedom fighters, attackers, and terrorists. How do their responses differ? Their answers may depend on the degree of their exposure to news media and the opinions that they have heard around them.
Fact or Opinion?
Helping students distinguish between fact and opinion is a good way to detect bias. Read or display the following paragraphs for your students:
Television news is more like entertainment than journalism. Popular news anchors become “stars” who merely deliver the stories as an actor would a script. The real reporting is done by someone else. The chief job of the news anchor is to look good on camera. Photogenic news anchors draw more viewers and that leads to greater ad revenues for the television stations.
Our state’s justice system needs to be reformed. The state crime bureau reported last month that 82% of violent crime convictions are for repeat offenders. I know about lenient sentences firsthand. My brother was attacked and disabled by a man with a long criminal history. His attacker received just two years in prison—a mere slap on the wrist! We must get tough on violent criminals and protect law-abiding citizens.
First, separate facts from opinions in these paragraphs. The correlation noted in Paragraph 1 between attractive news anchors, increased viewership, and greater ad revenue has been proven. While it is true that being at ease in front of the camera is important for news anchors, whether or not it is their “chief job” is a matter of opinion.
In Paragraph 2, the writer’s opinion about violent crime is clearly informed by his personal, emotional experience on this issue. At the same time, the writer also offers a provable statistic that reinforces his main idea.
Tone and Bias
Consider the tone of these two paragraphs. Paragraph 1 is written in the third person. This might seem more trustworthy, but the tone of disrespect or sarcasm indicates bias. Paragraph 2 is written in the first person and has an angry, resentful tone. This point of view is often a tip-off for bias, but the writer also supports his point with objective data.
Be a Bias Detective
Media bias seldom declares itself openly. There are clear cases where bias is expected, such as in opinion pieces or editorials. Learning to detect bias means hunting for clues. It also means becoming familiar with different kinds of writing and considering context. Developing the ability to detect bias enables students to weigh the evidence and form their own opinions rather than simply following the lead of others.