media bias

media Jan 12, 2022

what is media bias?

I usually hear about "media bias" when people talk about large, systemic problems with "mainstream media." A very brief internet search shows that bias commonly appears in many forms. After reading for a bit, I found a list on Wikipedia that's more than adequate for this blog post. I've summarized it here with my own additional commentary. Note that most of these sources of bias can be adequately addressed by transparently including a conflict-of-interest statement clearly at the top of the story. Also note that, contrary to what the Wikipedia article says, bias is different from discrimination. Discrimination, as defined by United States law, is favoring or attacking an individual or group based on their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, national origin, age above 40, disability, or genetic information.

Here are some examples of bias:

  • Coverage/visibility bias: making some stories more or less accessible to consumers. For example, offering some stories for free, but putting others behind a paywall. Could also include putting some stories only in print while offering others online.
  • Gatekeeping/selectivity bias: choosing only stories that support a narrative. When that narrative is political, it's called agenda bias.
  • Statement/tonality bias: slanting reports and stories for or against someone or something. I find this one especially common in "pulp news" and tabloids, but it's becoming more popular at all levels. Note: editorials or opinion pieces that are clearly labeled are not included in this category.
  • Advertising bias: trying to please advertisers. Free news sources are particularly susceptible to this because they get all their revenue from advertisers rather than their consumers.
  • Concision bias: selecting stories that are easy to tell concisely. This is especially prevalent when sources pick stories that can make good headlines. Further, people with short attention spans are more likely to be victims of this. This can include putting some information only in the beginning of a report and "hiding" other information toward the middle or end.
  • Corporate bias: trying to please the company that owns the media source.
  • Mainstream bias: trying to report things that everyone else is reporting or that people are more likely to accept. Sometimes news is truly unbelievable. A news source can lose credibility and customers by reporting such stories.
  • Partisan bias: trying to support a political party. This is the one I hear the most about, though it may not actually be the most concerning, especially if the media source is clear about which party it supports. I would often like to know how a particular political group interprets a story rather than having to guess from the story itself.
  • Sensationalism bias: choosing stories that show the most extreme or rare occurrences instead of those that report "ordinary" events. This is one of the most harmful. In fact, one of my my previous posts exclusively explored this type of bias.
  • Structural bias: when someone or something receives more coverage simply because their position is more "newsworthy," regardless of what they've actually done. For example, having more coverage on legislation proposed by the president than legislation proposed by actual legislators regardless of the content or impact of the legislation itself. This also includes covering statements or actions made by celebrities or "important" people even though the same statement or action would not have been newsworthy if made by a "normal" or "average" person. This type of bias is closely tied to sensationalism and has been instrumental in fueling so-called "cancel culture." Jon Ronson, one of my favorite journalists, has a wonderful TED talk about this:
  • False balance: when opposing views are presented as having equal value regardless of their actual worth. Personally, I see this most often in encyclopedias (especially Wikipedia), Bible commentaries, and from reporters and authors who are trying to avoid the perception of partisan bias. This type of bias includes presenting people as having equal qualifications or expertise to show "balance," even though one person is more qualified or more expert than the other. This is a huge problem for online product reviews that give every person's opinions equal weight. It occurs most often when consumers are more likely to trust a non-expert than an actual expert.
  • Undue weight: when something is presented as more sensational than it actually is. This is close to the opposite of structural bias.
  • Speculative content: when an article is not clearly marked as speculative or opinion-based, but it includes speculation and opinions anyway.
  • False timeliness: implying that something is new or newly relevant, even though the same thing has existed for a long time without being newsworthy. Examples that come to mind are infomercials, celebrity scandals, and statements made by politicians.  
  • Ventriloquism: using quotations from people with credibility to support the author's own opinions.

These are just some examples. Bias clearly goes well beyond politically motivated actions. In fact, most bias can be adequately addressed by simply disclosing party affiliation, monetary conflicts of interest, and clearly differentiating between factual and speculative/opinionated information.

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