Bias in the news is a topic that gets frequent coverage but not with the level of depth that it requires. In this article I share ways to recognise bias and to protect yourself from it. This article is a complement to my previous article on how fake news spreads through viral messages.
Bias in news media is observable at various levels (not a comprehensive list):
- Political & economic systems (e.g democracy vs autocracy, capitalism vs. communism, etc.)
- International political alliances (e.g. USA vs. Russia, The West vs. China, etc.)
- Intra-national politics (e.g. the Republicans vs. the Democrats in the US, the BJP vs. the Congress in India, etc.)
- Specific issues (e.g. taxation, religious freedom, sexuality, war, etc.)
Having lived in four countries, I have observed how the news covers things differently depending on where you are and what source you use. This article puts together some of my observations. I expect that at least one of the examples that I have selected will inflame you. I make no apologies.
Bias in news media manifests itself in a few ways (again, not comprehensive). I have ordered these in terms of what I suppose to be most evident to least evident:
- One-sided analysis
- Propagandistic and unobjective language
- The false equivalency of “two sides to every story”
- What the media do not cover / show
When there are opposing views and the news focuses mostly on the positive aspects for one view and mostly on the negative aspects for another view, the news and analyses are one-sided. While researching for this article, I found a very helpful site called Media Bias / Fact Check (MBFC) that evaluated news organisations based on their political positions as well as credibility. MBFC uses a US-specific “left-right” alignment spectrum to evaluate political positions.
- Fox News and CNN take partisan and opposing positions on US politics.
- In international politics, various news sources intentionally or inadvertently channel the propagandistic goals of their governments or the ideals of their reporters to varying degrees, e.g. CNN (USA), RT (Russia), Al Jazeera (Qatar), The Straits Times (Singapore), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong/China). This does not necessarily mean that their reporting is not generally credible (RT’s reporting does get abysmal scores for that).
- MBFC has a page listing sources that they categorise as conspiracy/pseudoscience. Some entertaining mentions:
- Goop, a company that sells beauty and health products such as an egg to insert into one’s vagina (pseudoscience level: quackery).
- Infowars, a right-wing website and radio programme (conspiracy level: tinfoil hat) by Alex Jones that sells pseudoscience products (pseudoscience level: strong); Jones made a movie about how a New World Order of elites wanted 80% of the human population dead so that they could live forever.
- PETA, an animal rights organisation that claims that beer is healthier than milk to justify alternative drinks to milk (pseudoscience level: strong).
- News agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press show up very well in terms of credibility and lack of bias on MBFC. I highlight these two because they focus primarily on supplying news to other organisations rather than influencing the public and are not known for their analysis.
Propagandistic and unobjective language
It is possible to say exactly the same thing with slightly different words to convey one’s appreciation or contempt for the subject. Certain words and phrases are only used about one side in a partisan debate and never about the other due to the emotions that they evoke:
- “regime” (negative) vs “government” (factual) e.g.
- “terrorist” (negative) vs “freedom fighter” (positive) vs attacker, bomber, etc. (factual)
Reuters (linked guide may be outdated) and Associated Press warn against using biased language in their style guides. Reuters’ handbook says this about the word “regime”: “A word with negative overtones in a political context. Use government.” About the “war on terror”: “Do not use this phrase unless in a quote. It is poor English and part of the propaganda battle around militant violence.” The handbook warns reporters to be careful with the term “terrorism” and that they should not refer to any event as terrorism in order to remain objective, except if they are quoting someone’s speech.
Certain words and phrases have objective meanings which nevertheless have specific connotations:
- “invasion” (negative/neutral) vs “war” (negative/neutral) vs “military operation” (neutral) — all of these words have factual meanings, but the exact choice of words can reveal how the reporter wants the audience to feel. E.g. Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, but in Russia the invasion is called a “special military operation”. Calling it an “invasion”, “attack” or “war” can get one thrown in prison for upto 15 years in Russia, making the wording a propaganda tool.
Certain words and phrases, by their very nature, are inherently one-sided and propagandistic.
- “Arab Spring” (positive) vs “Arab Revolts/Uprisings of 2011” (neutral) – referring to the protest movements in the Arab world in 2011. The term “Arab Spring” was initially used rhetorically, comparing the events to previous events in the Arab world in the 2000s and in Europe in the 1960s. Western news media ran with the term, implying their support for these protests and the democratic reforms that they hoped would arise. The Arab Spring has now become the accepted term in the West for the series of events regardless of one’s opinion of it – I had to search for a while to find a credible news source that had referred to it as “Arab Uprisings”. As they happened in 2011, one could see that the protests were going to lead to chaos, anarchy and shattered hopes. Eleven years after the events, the people of none of the countries involved live better lives due to the uprisings, while those in some countries (Syria and Libya in particular) have it much worse.
Does your news anchor ever refer to a government as a regime while referring to your own as a government? Do they refer to separatists in a part of your country or that of a neighbour as terrorist, as freedom fighters or something else? Consider also how the news media allied to the “regime” or having the opposing view of the separatists refer to them and how that influences the minds of their audience.
The false equivalency of “two sides to every story”
What we have covered so far is relatively simple and easy to spot. Now we get to the more insidious and challenging areas of propaganda. There may be multiple perspectives on an issue, but not all of these perspectives are equally valid:
- The perspective of a random person on a topic does not have the same weight as that of an expert who has spent years researching that topic.
- The perspectives of a fringe political party do not have the same weight as those of a mainstream political party, on account of the larger group of people that the latter represents.
- A statement that the earth is flat is not as valid as a statement that it is spherical, which is also not as valid as a statement that explains that it is an imperfect sphere which flattens at the poles and is wider at the equator.
- Sometimes, by its very nature, one perspective has greater weight than another. E.g., when one country has invaded another sovereign country which does not pose an immediate threat to it and brought great suffering to the latter, it is natural for the news to be overwhelmingly negative against the invaders. To attempt to say that the perspective of the invader is as valid as that of the invaded is tricky to say the least.
Giving perspectives of unequal validity comparable airtime on TV or comparable space in a news article or suggesting that they are equally valid is a deception that only pretends to be showing both sides of a story. It has the effect of confusing the viewer and often that is the intention.
There is another problem. Often, the people on one side of the discussion will be subject matter experts (SMEs) who indeed have many years of study or working expertise, and thus are technically competent in the area. When there is to be a debate on the topic, the other side may be represented by a communications expert experienced in influencing public opinion and armed with talking points to create uncertainty about the subject or to refute the arguments of the SMEs. Unless the SME is also experienced in terms of influencing public opinion, the debate will go in favour of the communications expert to the detriment of the viewing public. This is a well-known tactic employed by interests with respect to tobacco (“there is doubt that smoking causes cancer”) and oil (“global warming may have many causes, and it is not certain that it is caused by humans”) in particular.
The key message here is this: there may be multiple sides to a story; objective media will try to cover the various sides objectively; however, objective coverage does not equate to spending an equal amount of time on every perspective, because the validity of all perspectives is rarely equal.
What the media do not cover / show
Relevant news that news media ignore or intentionally do not show can tell us about their biases as well.
I have vivid recollections from 2003, perhaps distorted by the space of 19 years, of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein during the US invasion of Iraq. The images that I saw on the news showed a throng of Iraqis pulling a rope tied around a statue of Saddam that was then shown lying on the ground. The framing of the images gave a strong impression that a large group of Iraqis had pulled down the massive statue of the man who had ruled over them until a few weeks prior. Later images revealed that it was a US military vehicle that pulled down the statue. It is intriguing how few images show the military vehicle in the photo, but plenty of videos are now available on the internet that provide the context of the events of that day. Even with the videos, the news misled viewers with the idea that the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam himself were popular with Iraqis. 19 years after the events, Iraq remains in chaos.
While looking for examples of the “terrorist”/”freedom fighter” duality for this article, I came across the example of Naser Abu Hmeid, a Palestinian prisoner in Israel. The sources that highlight his illness are mostly Palestinian sympathisers, but what is most notable to me is the omission: the anti-Israel media promoting the story are not keen to mention why Israel sentenced Hmeid to seven life sentences in prison – for killing seven people. If that fact were mentioned in the article, the reader may feel slightly less sympathetic to Hmeid and to his cause.
How can we stay well informed?
I have a few tactics:
- Identify and use objective sources
- Check the same news topic on multiple sources
- Look up the news that you see on social media
Identify and use objective sources
When I look for news, I usually prioritise sources such as Reuters and Associated Press because I trust their objectivity. They score well on MBFC’s scales and they tend to not push agenda. Check your own news sources on a site such as MBFC or on fact-checkers.
Analysis is more challenging than factual reporting. We use some news media for their analyses rather than for breaking news. Media that provide analyses are unlikely to be unbiased; analysis requires judgement; judgement often results in the taking of positions. My advice would be to check your sources for their bias and also to not rely only on this source for actual news. E.g. I subscribe to The Economist for its solid analysis; The Economist takes positions on important subjects (e.g. they called for western intervention in Syria in 2012-2013) which will influence their readership.
Some news sources are objective and fairly present the various sides when they do not have a stake in the topic. I will provide examples in the next section.
Check the same news topic on multiple sources
During the protests in 2019-2020 in Hong Kong, one received news biased in favour of the protesters from most western media and some Hong Kong publications. The South China Morning Post (SCMP), based in Hong Kong and owned by China-based Alibaba, provided counterpoints with their reporting. Some news media in China covered the protestors as our favourite boogeymen, terrorists. I found the most clear-eyed perspectives on this particular conflict in Singapore’s The Straits Times (ST). However, while I could rely on ST for analysis, for daily news I was still forced to check both SCMP and other local news to stay up-to-date.
For conflicts where the United States and Russia are on opposing sides, American and Russian news sources would provide perspectives that are sometimes biased by their own agendas. At the most extreme is RT, which today is naked Russian government propaganda, while the US media tends to fall between the extremes of objective and agenda-led. I have found Qatar’s Al Jazeera as well as ST to be relatively unbiased news sources in this context.
When reading about the long-running dispute involving India, Pakistan, China and Kashmir on the topic of which country Kashmir belongs to (or whether it should be independent), I would read western news such as the BBC rather than news from the region. Indian children are indoctrinated to believe that the whole of Kashmir “belongs” to India, and Indian journalists may not be immune to this. I would not expect better from the media in Pakistan or China.
Look up the news that you see on social media
Social media algorithms show you content that you are more likely to view, and then they keep showing you more of it. If your network consists mostly of left-liberals and left-liberalism is also your political persuasion, you are unlikely to get the content that the conservatives or the moderates get on social media. The content is thus likely to further bias your thinking.
In 2021, I heard of the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white man who had shot three people at a Black Lives Matter protest. On social media I came across text posts, images and videos of how the system was rigged against black people and in favour of the white Rittenhouse. Images and videos showed that stated that the judge in the case was racist and a Trump supporter. Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder. How could a man who had shot three people be acquitted?
A trivial internet search revealed videos (warning: shooting and killing) of what happened: three men had attacked Rittenhouse, who had been standing or moving around armed with an assault rifle. Rittenhouse shot all three men while they were attacking him. My social media feed described how there was no justice for the defenders of black people, while those who killed them went free. The issue was emotionally charged from the beginning, loaded with context and the trial itself was highly politicised and heavily played out in agenda-driven news media. I had received only one perspective until I’d sought out more information.
When you get news on one topic or theme via social media, look it up on the internet or on a trustworthy source to get better context.
In this article, we have covered certain manifestations of news media bias and, briefly, of social media bias. I recommend using trustworthy sources and also varied sources to stay well-informed.