Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Navigating Media Bias and Its Effects

This is a blog that I've been trying to put together for a while.  I had the what and how, but did not have the why beyond a very esoteric idea.  Then I ran across an article recently that put the why into perspective.

We all know the problem.  In this day and age, in the era of 24-hour news stations and the rise of opinion news, hot takes by nearly everyone on the internet, dis- and mis-information campaigns, "fake" news, clickbait headlines, trolling and bots, it is very difficult to find news and information sources that are reliable and trustworthy.  Even more difficult to find news sources that will give you facts alone that are not overloaded with opinion.  News sources that allow the viewer or the reader to reach their own opinions, instead of providing them for you.

To that end, I find it beneficial to rely back to a few sources to determine the particular bias or bent of a particular news source. One resource is the chart below, generated by an interested amateur, who explained and documented her methodology here.

The chart, at the very least, gives a quick overview of prominent news sources and where they fall in terms of depth of coverage and political/social bias.  Most of the news sources on the chart, at least in terms of where they fit in terms of bias should be recognizable.  It's no surprise that Fox News has a conservative bias and MSNBC has a liberal bias.  The question would be one of degree.  And this particular chart gets a little less helpful with nuance, particularly with the sources identified closer to the middle.

For a more in depth evaluation of bias, there are a couple of websites that are beneficial.

All Sides Media Bias Ratings (https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-ratings)

Media Bias/Fact Check (https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/)

All Sides in particular separates out news and editorial divisions, so that news sources could get different ratings for each on bias.  For example, All Sides labes Fox News news division as lean right and its editorial division as far right.  (My comment - recognizing of course, in this day and age, it is getting harder and harder to separate news and editorial divisions).  For comparison, Media Bias labels Fox as hard right.

This can be a little more helpful in pinning down sources closer to the center, as to find a lean right or lean left bias.  There is disagreement among the different services, so it only represents a start, not a conclusion.

What's left is the why.  Why does this matter?  If I have found a news source that I like and feel I can trust, why is it important to know their bias?  And beyond broader calls for understanding across the spectrum, I ran across a study that someone had shared that brings this all into perspective. 

Business Insider ran an article on a study conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University based on a new PublicMind survey to determine the most informative sources of news.  Researcher's asked 1,185 random nationwide respondents what news sources they had consumed in the past week and then asked them questions about events in the United States and abroad.  On average, people correctly guessed answers to 1.6 of the 5 questions about domestic affairs, and 1.8 of the questions about international affairs.  They then broke the results out by the particular news sources relied upon by the participants.  The study seems to reveal that our most popular national media sources - Fox, CNN, MSNBC - seem to be the least informative.  In fact, participants who obtained their news chiefly from Fox fared worse in both sets of questions than participants who admitted to not watching the news at all.  MSNBC did not fare much better, also trailing behind those that watched no news at all in the international questions.

Fairleigh Dickinson University

Fairleigh Dickinson University

Now, the study is not perfect and should not be viewed as the ultimate arbiter of the value of these news sources.  We can point to questions regarding the size of the participant population, selection process, other factors affecting news absorption, and potential selection bias in the questions posed.  We can discuss how the study cannot truly point to causation and disheartening that even the highest average for a news source never reached 2 questions out of 5.  Still a failing grade.

But when viewed in context with the bias chart and bias determinations, we see a continuing refrain:

"Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience.  This is solid evidence that if you're not in that audience, you're not going to get anything out of watching them."  It seems further evidence that even if you are in the target audience, you are not getting enough out of that news sources to keep you truly informed.

So, where to go from here?  The following would be my recommendations; take them for their worth:

  • Learn the current bias - Investigate the bias of your favorite news sources and see if you are comfortable with it.  
  • Read more - Find more than one news source that you are comfortable with.  In particular, find a news source that you like on the opposite end of the spectrum from your current one.  It doesn't have to be hard left to compete with hard right.  Even something that leans left if your typical news comes from right sources can help balance out the information that you are receiving.
  • Look center - Follow agreed upon central news sources like the Associated Press, which supplies news to both sides.  Realize you may be giving up depth in coverage, but generally your giving up depth of opinion or informed opinion, not facts.
  • Get perspective - Find an international news source, like the BBC, for perspective.  It can truly be beneficial to get an outsider's perspective of the events of the day.  Sometimes our news organizations are part of the broader story, which makes it difficult to report.
  • Be charitable - Don't fall for any news source that tries to demonize the other side.  If your news source seems to be constantly blaming the other side, it has an agenda.  I've grown more and more fond of this quote that George W. Bush has shared.  "Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions."  Life and reality are generally somewhere in the middle and we should be seeking information that bridges that gap.

The new media landscape we have created can be a minefield to navigate.  As always, be safe out there.

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