How to Tell if a News Story has Bias
There is a bias spectrum when it comes to news.
One indicator of how much a news story has bias is the type of story it is.
On the left side is pure news, which is entirely fact-based and unbiased. A news story reports the facts about something that happened. The facts are verified and known, i.e., there’s been a fire, a storm, an election. It is the factual reporting of events, and it should include all the facts, not just those that are cherry-picked to support a particular point of view.
On the right side is editorial, which always expresses the author’s point of view, and is entirely biased. An editorial presents the author’s feelings and perspective on the subject. They can be used for a wide range of purposes, including criticism, suggestions, warnings, kudos, etc.
Somewhere in the middle is analysis. An analysis is a news story that includes a certain amount of examination and commentary about the subject of the story. For example, a reporter might say, "this development is likely to hurt the legislation's chances of passing."
Taking a step back
All this being said, bias is a natural part of being human. Each one of us has a worldview, which is how we see and understand the world around us. Reality and facts are filtered through our lens of perceptions and biases, which are shaped by our experiences. This is true for even the purest of journalists. So, almost every news story has bias to some degree, whether it be a tiny bit or a large chunk.
So what exactly does bias mean?
A biased story is simply a story that doesn’t present both or all sides of an issue evenly. It doesn’t include the arguments, concerns, or points from the opposing viewpoint in an honest way.
For example, a pro-life advocate may write an article asserting that women should not be able to abort a child after their first trimester. That would be a biased article. Another author might present both sides of the issue, both pro-life and pro-choice. That would be more likely to be unbiased.
What creates bias in a story?
There are two main ways that bias is introduced into a news story:
- Word choice
- Omission of facts
Word choices, figurative language, and other literary devices can slant a purely factual statement into one that leads the reader/viewer to draw conclusions that may not otherwise be made.
For example, take the following fact:
"President Trump discussed his foreign policy concerning Japan in a meeting with reporters yesterday."
This purely factual sentence can be slanted with a bias by changing the word choice:
"President Trump reluctantly discussed his obstructive foreign policy regarding Japan yesterday in a closed-door meeting with limited press."
With the biased sentence, the reader is led to believe that:
- The president didn’t want to discuss foreign policy regarding Japan
- His foreign policy isn’t effective
- Only reporters of Trump’s choosing were allowed to attend
...whether this is true or not, the bias leaves the reader with no reliable way to tell the difference.
Omission of facts
Biased media pulled one sentence from President Trump’s speech at a North Carolina protest to suggest that he supported white supremacists. The sentence was: "... you also had people that were very fine people on both sides." However, the full transcript of his speech shows that he was referring only to the peaceful protesters who were infiltrated by uninvited, violent groups.
What the biased media left out was: "…and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly."
This was biased journalism by omission. It was the partial reporting of facts that led viewers to make incorrect interpretations of what really happened.
How to identify the bias?
To consciously recognize a shadow message in a story, you have to be comprehensive and critical in your reading.
Most news stories are biased to varying degrees, one way or another. To get an idea of the extent of the bias in a particular story, you have to figure out the complete set of facts about what they are reporting. This comes from reading a wide variety of sources, including those who show obvious bias. Once you have a grasp on the objective facts, you can begin to evaluate and recognize the bias in the original article. The limited facts they report may reveal a hidden bias.
You have to be very critical with your reading. Read the story carefully for descriptive words and phrases that have attributive emotional hooks. The word choice and literary devices an author uses can frame and bias the story in a certain way to elicit an unjustified emotional response from the reader.
Edited by Justin Adam