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Identifying Bias

Politics and the media

Research shows that Republicans and Democrats spot bias only in articles that clearly favor the other party. If an article tilts in favor of their own party, they tend to see it as unbiased.

Marjorie Hershey in The Conversation

Political bias in the media is an extremely complex issue. Everyone has their own personal beliefs and opinions that impact how they perceive bias.

A 2019 survey found that more than 80% of Americans felt there was “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of political bias in the news (Knight Foundation, 2020). Some of the major concerns they expressed were that news was reported from a particular point of view, lacked objectivity, and showed bias in which stories were or were not reported.

So how can you detect bias in media? Determine if the piece is factual reporting or opinion-based, consider the source's reputation and its publication standards, and be aware of your own personal biases.

News or opinion?

Many news organizations publish both fact-based reporting and opinion pieces. Historically, newspapers had separate and clearly labeled pages for news and opinion/editorial content. The distinction between the two categories can be difficult to identify, especially when stories are shared on social media without context.

A 2018 study asked U.S. adults to read and classify 10 statements. Only 26% correctly identified all of the factual statements, and 35% correctly identified all of the opinion statements (Mitchell et al., 2018). Unsurprisingly, people tended to categorize opinion statements they agreed with as being factual. Take the quiz to test your own ability to distinguish facts and opinions.


                The chart shows percentages of U.S. adults who correctly classified opinion and factual statements. For opinions, 35% correctly classified all five, 24% four, 19% three, and 22% two or fewer. For facts, 26% correctly classified all five, 24% four, 21% three, and 28% two or fewer.
Survey conducted Feb. 22-March 4, 2018 (Mitchell et al., 2018).

Look for exaggeration, emotionally-loaded words, sarcasm, and first-person statements to identify opinion pieces. Websites may also use labels like editorial, review, column, op-ed, commentary, and opinion.

Reputation and standards

Reputable news sources should have an established editing process, including verifying facts before publishing and correcting errors (Caulfield, 2017). Publications also often have a code of ethics that includes principles such as accuracy, fairness, avoiding conflicts of interest, and transparency (SPJ, 2014). For examples of these policies, see the Wall Street Journal Newsroom Standards & Ethics or the Washington Post verification and fact-checking standards.

Outlets that follow journalistic standards can still be geared towards one end of the political spectrum to meet the ideologies of their readers or viewers. Research a news outlet with one of the techniques on our Evaluating Sources guide, like reading about it on Wikipedia or a website that evaluates media for bias and accuracy.

If you’re concerned that an article you’re reading is biased, look for coverage on that topic from other reputable news sources.

Sources

Caulfield, M. (2017). Web literacy for student fact-checkers. https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/

Hershey, M. (2020, October 5). Political bias in media doesn’t threaten democracy — other, less visible biases do. https://theconversation.com/political-bias-in-media-doesnt-threaten-democracy-other-less-visible-biases-do-144844

Knight Foundation. (2020, November 9). American views in 2020: Trust, media and democracy. https://knightfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/American-Views-2020-Trust-Media-and-Democracy.pdf

Mitchell, A., Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., & Sumida, N. (2018, June 18). Distinguishing between factual and opinion statements in the news. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2018/06/18/distinguishing-between-factual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/

Society of Professional Journalists. (2014, September 6). SPJ Code of Ethics. https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp