Bottom-Up Media Bias


Spotting bias in journalism is a trickier task than it may seem. While calls of "biased media" and "fake news" abound in the public discourse today and stem from both conservative and liberal sides of the political realm, many of those claims are relatively baseless, or they say more about the accuser than the accused. The purpose of this reading (and its partner essay, "Top-Down Media Bias"), therefore, is to give you the tools and vocabulary necessary to determine for yourself when media is unacceptably biased as well as a healthy doubt in your own infallibility in doing so.

Just a reminder: we're working from the same definitions given in the Journalism Continuum reading, especially for the word "article," which we will use to refer to any and all publications of the news media including print news stories, web content, television and radio broadcasts, podcasts, blog posts, and more.

Defining Bias

What is Bias?

Definitions of the word "bias" in dictionaries often include the word "inclination," such as this one from Merriam-Webster: "an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice." The idea is that one is inclined to interpret things in a certain way. For example, if I'm biased in favor of New York-style pizza, I'm inclined, or likely, to judge the quality of a Chicago-style pizza more harshly than I do a New York-style pie. Objectively speaking, both pizzas could be top-notch, the best of their respective cities' styles, but because I have a bias, a preference, I'll tend to see things through my subjective lens.

Think of an actual incline. If I place a ball on a surface that is inclined, it is very likely to roll the way the surface is slanted—only a strong wind or some other force can prevent the inevitable. That inclination is bias.

What then does a lack of bias look like? A horizontal surface that is perfectly level. If I place a ball on that surface, it has an equal chance of moving in any direction along the surface, based not on the surface's slant but on whatever other forces act on it. The surface is unbiased, objective, fair.

To put this in terms of critical thinking, what a critical thinker strives to do is to identify and neutralize his or her own biases and make judgments in as objective a manner as possible. If I'm going to judge pizza and be a critical thinker at the same time, I must set aside my inclination to favor one or another style of pizza and allow myself to be convinced by the data I encounter, not by my preconceived notions that seek to affect the way I interpret the data. In other words, I try not to be a slanted surface.

Doing this is, as you might guess, incredibly difficult if not actually impossible. With something like pizza, it can be possible to adopt a functionally (if not actual) non-biased approach for two reasons: one, most of us don't hold our opinions about pizza so close to our hearts that we are incapable of setting them aside (I, for one, have never met a pizza I didn't like), and two, the stakes of our judgments are relatively low (except maybe for restaurant critics), so the actual non-biasedness we need to adopt isn't that strict.

But what about when the topic at hand is something about which we have strong feelings or about which the stakes are high? In that case, effectively recognizing and neutralizing one's bias can be very difficult. I'm thinking of things like moral and political values. Most of us believe so deeply, for example, that murder is wrong that we would have a hard time setting aside our fundamental moral assumption and considering a case fully outside of that context. Even more close to home, perhaps, is the belief that we are each the good guy in our own life stories. We are so fundamentally predisposed to seeing ourselves as the hero or protagonist in our stories that when we narrativize our experiences, we do so (often unconsciously) with ourselves at the center. I mean, of course that person who broke your heart last year was at fault for the problems in the relationship. He or she was crazy! While you, obviously, are well-adjusted, consistently good and kind, and in no way irrational or self-unaware. Right?

Or could it be maybe that you're possibly biased in favor of yourself?

Media Bias

So far we've been discussing bias in terms of how we see and interpret the world around us, that is, how we import and process information. But we need to also recognize that our biases influence how we interact back with the world, that is, how we export information to others. If I'm biased about what kind of pizza I prefer, that bias doesn't only influence me and my relative enjoyment of my dinner. It also influences how I talk about pizza to others, which in turn might contribute to their own biases. For example, as a parent, I may—consciously or unconsciously—impose my bias about pizza on my kids in how I talk about various types, subtly praising New York-style and demeaning Chicago-style (again: this is an example. I like all the pizza). My kids, unaware that my bias is subjective and arbitrary, might grow up thinking my bias about pizza is actually a fact, that NY-style is objectively better that Chi-town's. It might not be until they move away to attend university that they encounter a world that doesn't take that fact for granted, that they try a deep-dish pie with an open heart for the first time, that they finally become their own people, free from daddy's peccadilloes.

This analogy illustrates why bias in news media is such a concern. If a journalist intentionally or unintentionally allows his or her bias to influence how he or she perceives, interprets, and writes about events, that bias could indoctrinate readers, skewing the way they perceive, interpret, and talk to others about the same event. Because journalists have a much bigger impact on the public discourse than, say, parents, it's important that they be held to a higher standard. Actually, they are. Whereas parents can generally fill their children's heads with all kinds of nonsense with no oversight, journalists have to send their writing through their outlet's editorial process before it can be published. Fact-checkers, proofreaders, and various editors typically look over an article and make corrections, changes, and suggestions to make sure it meets the outlet's standards and will not harm its reputation. Only then is it cleared for publishing.

In a perfect world, journalists and news outlets would do their honest best to always carefully manage and minimize bias in their writing, and readers would all be critical thinkers, actively engaging with what they read in order to counteract the effect of any remaining bias. You might think of this as the social contract between news media and yourself, each accepting part of the responsibility that comes from all of us being fallible. Come to think of it, by reading this, you're becoming more of a critical thinker, thus making the world a slightly better place. Well done!

Biased About What?

Now that we understand what bias is and why it's problematic, we can ask: What could journalists be biased about? Typically we talk about media bias in political terms; that is, we point to liberal or conservative bias. This means that the bias we see aligns with liberal (left) or conservative (right) political ideals.

In its simplest form, political bias can be seen in the stance a writer takes toward, say, the president or members of Congress. If a writer takes a combative stance towards a conservative president such as Donald Trump, we interpret that writer as being liberally biased. If a writer is prone to interpret a liberal president's actions, such as those of Barack Obama, in a negative light, we interpret that writer as being conservatively biased.

But this example belies the huge complexity of the American political spectrum and of individual people's experience of it, seeming to reduce one's options down to a simple for-or-against stance. In fact, not only can one be varying degrees of for-or-against, one can be for some things and against others at the same time. For example, it's possible to be extremely conservative in one's economic beliefs while simultaneously being middle-of-the-road on environmental policy and heavily liberal about social issues. And that goes from journalists and presidents as well: no one is merely liberal or merely conservative. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, a distinctly American poet: We are large; we contain multitudes.

This is not the place, nor am I qualified, to explain the whole American political landscape. But here are some resources you might consult to better understand, if you so desire:

Looking for bias in terms of national politics is certainly not the only way to proceed, either. For one thing, national and regional/local politics differ a great deal, and you may need to adjust your outlook to account for how, say, liberalism looks differently in a large urban center versus a rural community. Also, bias can be motivated by racism or sexism rather than by politics, or it can revolve around other ideologies or systems of belief. Also also, when the issue at hand is an international one—say, Britain's exit from the European Union or Japan–North Korean relations—other factors may apply. The possibilities are really endless.

So what is a reader to do? The best idea would be to try to identify the possible sides to an issue before you read so that you know what forms bias may take. This may involve a little quick internet research or talking to a friend more well-versed in a topic than you are. You may also have to proceed in the dark for awhile, reading potentially biased material from multiple sources until you get a handle on what the sides might be.

The Origins of Media Bias

Before we jump into discussing the specific forms bias might take, we need to take a minute to examine where bias comes from. Consider these questions: What makes a news outlet biased? How does a news outlet get a reputation for being biased? Is it that the individual articles are all individually biased and that, collectively, they create the reputation a media outlet has? Or is it that the editorial staff, publishers, and owners of a media outlet exert pressure on individual articles and writers to fit a predetermined narrative? In other words, does bias begin at the bottom and work its way up or does it start at the top and work its way down?

The answer, it might not surprise you to hear, is both. "Bottom-up bias" means bias that is introduced primarily at the level of individual articles. If a reader of a publication encounters bias in the various articles that he or she reads, he or she is likely to start thinking of the outlet as a whole as being biased in that way. "Top-down bias" indicates bias that is introduced at the level above that of individual articles, say, by a section editor who chooses to run or prominently place stories that conform to a particular viewpoint or agenda or by an owner who pressures his or her editors to do so. If a reader notices that, say, the business section of the New York Times seems to privilege one type of story or consistently place that type of story on the front page of the section rather than deeper within, he or she is likely to start thinking of that section or the whole newspaper as having a particular bias.

To be clear: As readers we can probably never really know where the bias we see in journalism actually comes from, whether it is the result of a writer's actions (or mistakes), an editor's oversight (or lack thereof), an owner's prerogative (or hands-off attitude), or other factors. So rather than use the terms "bottom-up" and "top-down" to assign responsibility, we'll use them to merely describe the location at which we see bias. This reading will discuss several forms that bottom-up bias can take; the next reading will discuss the forms of top-down bias.

Types of Bottom-Up Bias

This section is still a work in progress. In its place, please read this short Student News Daily article, paying special attention to bias by omission, bias by selection of sources, bias by labeling, and bias by spin. Also, please read this short article from FAIR.

Location, Location, Location

[coming soon]

Conclusions and Complications

[coming soon]