Don’t Get Taken for a Spin This Election Season: How to Spot & Avoid Media Bias

As we come upon another round of national elections this year, federal, state, and local candidates increase their best efforts to sway voters. There are debates detailing their ideas and plans for the future, rallies to ramp up enthusiasm, and political advertisements slamming their opponents—not to mention some occasional baby-kissing thrown in for good measure.

Ideally, each voter will take additional steps to learn about candidates and their proposed measures from objective sources that use reason to look past the bias and hype. However, with so many polarizing issues on the table this election season, voters may find it increasingly difficult to identify unbiased resources.

Listen to a conservative channel like Fox News, and you’ll hear outrage about what Obama has wrought and passionate arguments for Trump being the only one to save the U.S. from certain wrack and ruin.

Turn the channel to MSNBC, and you’ll hear outrage at the backward notions of the GOP ticket alongside passionate arguments for Obama’s impressive record and the promise of continuing to move forward over the next four years under Democratic leadership.

If you listen to the hype and believe the worst-case scenarios, you’ll no doubt feel outraged too, becoming a passionate advocate for your chosen candidate. If you’re still undecided, you may feel confused and unsure—you want to do your part by casting your vote for the best candidate, but have seemingly limited resources to help you objectively consider both camps.

As we head into the next few months and the crowd roars, here are our tips for maintaining a balanced perspective, regardless of your preferred news network:

1. Know What “Media Bias” Means

For the most part, allegations of bias in the media aren’t referring to a slant in the way a story is told by outright lying or misreporting facts. Instead, more frequently media bias relates to editorial decisions; i.e. what stories the network chooses to cover—and which are swept under the rug. This is called bias by story selection or bias by omission.

For example, Network A might devote more air time to the failings of ObamaCare and Democratic scandals while Network B spends more time discussing problems with the government response to gun control and casualties in the current Syrian conflict. 

Comparing available stories on the two networks, it’s easier to see how what’s left out can shape your views—even if the stories themselves are objectively reported.

Selecting stories isn’t the only way that different networks shape the overall impression given to their audience. Other types of media bias include:

Bias by Selection of Sources

Does your network include more sources that support one view over another? When a news story only presents one side, it is obviously the side the reporter supports. This bias can also be seen when a reporter uses such phrases as “experts believe,” “observers say,” or “most people believe” to influence viewer opinions.

To find bias by use of experts or sources, look for equal representation of both sides of an issue.

Bias by Labeling

There are two types of labeling. One in which one side of the political spectrum is given an extreme label, while the other side is not addressed with a label or given a more mild label.

By tagging politicians and groups with extreme labels, such as “far-right” or “far-left,” while leaving liberal politicians and groups unlabeled or with more mild labels, can cause viewers to take that ideological slant into account when evaluating the accuracy of an assertion.

The other type of bias by labeling is when one side is given a label, and the other is identified as an “expert” or “independent group.”

When looking for this type of bias, remember labeling in and of itself is not bias.  It is when one side is labeled and the other is not.

Bias by Spin

Bias by spin is a reporter’s subjective comments about objective facts, or when a journalist makes one ideological side look better than another. Spin involves tone, the part of the reporting that extends beyond hard news.

For example, six months into Clinton’s presidency, a Washington Post-ABC News poll surveyed the public's view.

Referring to the identical poll, the Post and ABC provided two very contrasting spins. On Nightline, anchor Chris Wallace intoned: “He's sounding tougher. He's acting friendlier to the press. And the polls show his long downward slide is ending,” as an on-screen bar graph cited the ABC-Washington Post poll. The next morning, The Washington Post headline read: “Disapproval of Clinton's Performance Reaches New High in Post-ABC Poll.”

While not always so obvious, you can see the effect of spin on what a news consumer takes away from a story by comparing how two journalists report the same or similar event.

So, which network displays the most bias? The question is entirely subjective. If you're more liberal than Fox, you're going to think it has a conservative bias. If you're more conservative than CNN, you're going to think it has a liberal bias.

No matter where they fall on the political spectrum, all news organizations focus on making money. Meaning that which stories get reported, and how they’re reported, is designed to entice a network’s viewers to stay tuned in by reporting what they want to hear.

2. Don’t Buy Into the Fear Mongering

Sensationalist talk is a way to manipulate our emotions. Research shows that triggering anxiety is one way for politicians to win us over to their ideas—our brains focus on the negative.

By bringing up frightening topics or the other candidate’s shortcomings, pundits have an easier time convincing us to join their side by making us afraid. That’s why both sides often share dire warnings of what will happen if the other side wins.

It’s important to remember that the Founding Fathers created three branches of government specifically for the checks and balances it offers—and to ensure that no president will have the power to become an autocratic ruler, such as a king or dictator who exercises absolute authority. (Not to mention that four or eight years is not enough time to see any single-minded vision come to fruition.)

To avoid believing the negative hype, remind yourself that political ads, talking heads, and news shows that have an agenda are trying to appeal to your emotions so that you’ll invest more time into following their coverage. 

3. Look Beyond Rhetoric

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of who’s got which plan for doing what—especially when you’re told that there’s so much to be afraid of!

Instead, focus on what values, ideals, and philosophies each candidate stands for. Look beyond the rhetoric to the person, because actions speak louder than words. Look at objective reports of public service, levels of integrity, trustworthiness, leadership, and diplomacy skills.

Consider what’s important to you, then which candidate reflects those values. Who do you think leads the most honorable life?

How to Spot Bias In the Media

The networks you watch have tremendous power in influencing your views. Media coverage might not ever be completely objective, but here are some questions to ask yourself about newspaper, TV and radio news to weed out subjective stories:

  1. Are there diverse opinions and sources?
  2. Does the story use stereotypes and fear-mongering to make a point?
  3. Does the story's point of view pander to a narrow audience?
  4. Are there double standards, where one side is condemned while the other is let off easy?
  5. Are there unchallenged assumptions?
  6. Is the language loaded with extremes?
  7. Is there a lack of context explaining why a situation occurred?
  8. Does the headline match the story, or was it designed just to capture your attention through fear?

Bottom Line: Remember That We All Share a Common Ground

If watching your preferred news network leaves you feeling all riled up, it’s a sure sign that they are preying on your fears. Resist falling for it, and seek out balanced and fair reporting that helps you determine for yourself what you think about the issues.

Remember that, despite news coverage reporting otherwise, every candidate supports the ideals of pursuing happiness, good health, and prosperity, and if voted into office, it’s unlikely that either will try to take those ideals away from you.

Instead, focus on what you can do: Educate yourself on the issues that you care about and vote. Be the change you want to see in the world. Be part of the village that raises the children. Be active in your community, making it a kinder, gentler place to live.

Now read: How to Check Facts & Never Fall for False Information Again

  • July 6, 2016

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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