How do we get our news? And more importantly, are we aware of the bias of our news? One of the most prolific merry-go-round statements circulating the pseudo-intellectuals nowadays is the bias of the media – and, while it has some justification – the bias is typically only recognized in sources that highlight stories contrary to our liking.
The Pretend Game: Unbiased News
Spoiler alert: every news source you read, watch, or hear is biased. It’s a ridiculous claim for CNN or Fox News to assert themselves as unbiased sources of news. Everyone with eyes or ears knows that CNN leans left and Fox leans right. The mainstream news outlets are viciously polarized. To pretend either is unbiased is entirely folly.
I and this site are biased as well – I can try very hard to not be; but eventually my colors will show. Maybe I can produce one article entirely consisting of statistics from the most reputable sources; but the way I searched for statistics, the way I interpreted statistics, the way I presented the statistics, and of course the statistics themselves are highly susceptible to bias (suggested reading: How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff).
But here’s one thing to get: bias is natural. It’s natural for us to view everything through our own lenses. It’s much harder – impossible fully – to turn our innate biases the other way, without genuine changes in our beliefs at least.
Now knowing it’s natural is good, but also does not mean the unbiased ideal is to be done away with. We should still strive, in our professional lives, to remove preventable biases from our work, conversations with others, and in honest presentations of facts as we best know them.
Mind Control: The Sieve of Information
Going by the common sense adage “don’t believe everything you read/hear/watch” is certainly good practice. We live in a time where information is king – it’s money and a business in its own right. Even more dangerously, information controls people; it controls you.
Imagine for a moment you live in a world where all information is derived from Wikipedia. Every time you want to know anything, you turn to Wikipedia for the answer: to learn how to cook a new dish, to understand the history of the heretical Gnostics, to find out the age of your favorite celebrity, and to read up on the stances of the political candidates running for office. From childhood, you’re taught that “reputable sources” are only those derived from Wikipedia. In all your school reports, the citations list must consist solely of Wikipedia articles.
Now further imagine that, to the dismay of everyone, Wikipedia is written in a language that almost no one understands. The few that do understand the language create internet sites, television shows, radio shows, and paper media to “translate” the information from Wikipedia to the common viewer. Two organizations called Red Truth and Blue Truth emerge as leading in information translating. All information that you and the public use is based on either translation from Red Truth or from Blue Truth.
Curiously, you notice that the “facts” from Blue Truth differ from the “facts” from Red Truth. Sometimes, their translations are entirely at odds; at other times, they are missing important pieces that the other organization has translated. Neither seems to translate the whole “Truth”. You are left very confused. Your friends, on the other hand, just choose either Red Truth or Blue Truth to be Gospel and live happily with that.
This is the morbid state of mainstream media. The narratives of our news act as filters of the facts. Some organizations wield that filter more than others, but every staff member at Red Truth and Blue Truth has some filter that will always leave out a percentage of the truth in their work. Often that filter grows larger with the size of the organization. That act of leaving out an inconvenient fact is an integral part of how the information filter works. The is the mildest, but most prevalent, form of news bias.
Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the more extreme form of news bias: blatant lies. In this case, the cause of downright media lies is either extraordinary negligence and laziness or the advance of a political or societal agenda at all costs.
Our mainstream news sources are filters of the truth; many facts are cherry-picked, left out, or worded in misleading ways to fit a broader political or societal narrative. Since the public acts on this filtered information, mass mind control is essentially achieved.
The Big Charade and Language
Our trust in the media as a nation has declined overall throughout the past 30 years. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans that believed our news media did a good job of separating fact from opinion dropped from 58% (1984) to 32% (2017). Two factors that have likely contributed to this decline is (1) the further polarizing of the media along party lines, which mirrors the further political divide in the U.S., and (2) the widespread use of the internet. This second point is a technological one: the internet has permitted the rise of third-party news sources and the ability to share information instantly.
Openly stated biases would be better for society than the charade of the unbiased news source. Knowing the bias of the source you’re reading/hearing/watching will aid in developing a critical lens through which to view the information.
Reading an article from CNN? Look for the facts/statistics/statements that are likely to harbor left-wing biases. Watching Fox News? Do the same knowing that right-wing political motivations are likely under the surface. Does this mean every statement in the news is wrong? Of course not. Most of the statements are probably true in some form, but the presentation makes all the difference. Since no one is parading around announcing the innate biases of their news organization, scrutinize everything closely.
Language is everything. Word choice can impact the way a viewer or reader interprets a fact. Moreover, deceitful word choice can change the meaning of a “fact”. The perfection of this deceitful word choice is embodied by “The Headline”: what 95% of people rely on for knowledge of the goings-on in the world.
There’s a major (and dangerous) tendency for people to believe something more if it’s written down, on television, or on the radio. Something about the broadcasting of ideas in these ways magically confers credibility to the speaker or writer in the eyes of the public.
To many, because that writer or speaker earns a career by producing these ideas, he or she must be right. This is a bogus (though unvoiced) idea that is even more inflated with our mainstream news. Just because there’s an article published in the biggest newspaper of the country doesn’t mean it has any credibility or truthfulness to it. Granted, credible writing can get you far professionally (or at least it used to). But, the blind belief that the article represents truth is stupidity.
Writers, news anchors, talk show hosts, and radio hosts all have their own biases. Some display those biases proudly (which I approve of for the sake of a better informed public), and others pretend they are the champion of objective truth. These are personal biases, which often tend to agree with the biases of the larger organization.
This points us toward another form of bias that is truly a bias larger than the sum of its members biases. I’ll call this “party bias”. This isn’t simply party bias as in the sense of a political party, though it certainly applies. Rather, I want to apply this concept to our news outlets. This party bias is essentially a weighted sum of members’ biases plus a bias driven by profit.
Now, as generally “free market” myself, this is certainly not a bash against the profit mechanisms of businesses, which includes news agencies. However, I do stress that understanding money is a factor in what you read/hear/watch from news outlets is important. Left-wing and right-wing news agencies (and companies) pander to political parties and candidates that benefit them both ideologically and monetarily.
The wise advice of “follow the money” concisely sums up an important consideration for the daily news you read. An even easier metric for understanding the biases of a larger news outlet or company, however, is to simply “follow the political endorsements”.
It bewilders me that often those who berate big business and corporations often defend the primary media organizations as innocent. News is a business – a big one. For the record, I will defend the importance of profit-producing businesses (businesses must grow after all if we want to employ many people); however, I still expect some consistency from those who oppose “profits” and yet praise the media when its advantageous to their ideology.
Bias is everywhere and hopelessly unavoidable. BUT knowledge is power. (My old calculus teacher claimed calculus is knowledge and knowledge is power; therefore, calculus is power!) A keen awareness that no source is perfectly unbiased can help us make sense through all the muck that is our news media today. We are truly engaged in a war of information – as the media and entertainment industries know the power they wield over the culture of our nation.
My advice is to read the “same” news from diametrically opposed news sites and think critically about what is presented by each. Understand the likely biases under the surface for every claim, every “fact”, every sentence uttered. Also, always go the the first-hand source if possible. In today’s world, this might mean watching the whole video (say of a politician’s remarks), rather than the clip cherry-picked by your favorite talking head.
God bless and keep your eyes open!
The 2017 Gallup poll summary can be found here: https://news.gallup.com/poll/225755/americans-news-bias-name-neutral-source.aspx