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Factual, timely and unbiased these are the top three qualities most readers seek when opting for a news source or publication. While it’s fairly easy to assess how quickly and accurately media outlets report on the news cycle, it is much harder to gauge if the news source is also objective and without any bias. 

Some news organizations and media personalities have clear political and social leanings which in turn affects their reportage and the lens through which they frame their stories. As long as they are transparent with their viewers about their ideologies, a reader/viewer can make a clear conscious choice of engaging with their content and inevitably forming their own opinion on key issues.

However, according to the News Literacy Project, news bias is usually “incidental and debatable rather than intentional and overt,” meaning news organizations are trying NOT to be biased in their news reporting, (with the exception of opinion and commentary pieces.)

So then how does bias slip into reporting and how can we better train ourselves to recognize it as readers? Don’t worry, there are a few ways to do that.

The first step towards countering bias is recognizing it

Newsrooms fall prey to bias when the coverage is partisan i.e. think news anchors going out of their way to malign or defend certain political leaders or parties. Similarly, reportage can also fall prey to bias in demographics when stories from a certain class, sect or ethnicity is prioritized over others. Lack of diversity within the newsroom can also lead to certain opinions enjoying more leverage than others.

For example, minority groups such as transgenders are often seen through a victim lens because there isn’t enough community representation in newsrooms to tell their own stories accurately and with agency. Hence, when choosing news outlets, look for those that have a healthy balance of women, people of color and minorities in their workforce.

Lastly, when corporate ownership and interests clash with editorial guidelines, it creates room for bias towards certain interests. For example, sensational political content that drives profits might enjoy more airtime than purpose-driven meaningful journalism.

Yes, even as readers – we should always question things

While explicit bias, which manifests itself in tone, use of certain language and visuals is easy to recognize – as smart news readers we also need to train ourselves to recognize the more subtle biases that often affect news coverage and invariably shape our opinions. To be more mindful of these biases, here are a few quick questions you should ask yourself when reading/watching a news story that evokes a strong emotional reaction: 

Who are the sources reporting this? 

Beware of publications that don’t cite their sources transparently and over rely on the same people/institutions for perspective

Example: This piece in the Tennessean is a great example of recommendations from editorial by transparently citing the sources of all their data and research

Does the headline match the story?

If the headline is overtly sensationalized and not consistent with the story, it indicates a click-bait bias from the publisher where they are willing to compromise on the integrity of the story to drive up numbers

Example:  UK publication Daily Express ran the following headline “Air pollution now leading cause of lung cancer.”  The article, however, said no such thing, or, rather, not exactly. Instead, it reported that pollution was a leading environmental cause while other causes, like smoking, are still the main drivers

Is there a lack of diversity in the narrative? 

If there is not enough diverse representation in the story, it is highly likely that it is being portrayed through a selective lens and hence, carries some implicit bias

Example: Most Pakistani news outlets reporting on Afghan refugees fail to report on the community beyond the security/geopolitical angle since reporting and research mostly does not include sources and scholars from the region itself

Is there a lack of context?

Seek news outlets that provide complete background information, historical context and factual evidence to establish their narrative. Publications that put in that kind of work do so as a sign of respect to their readers and their right to acquire all the necessary facts to form an opinion

Example: This NYT headline on the famous Meghan Markle-Oprah interview spotlights her comment on suicide while failing to frame it through the race relations angle that was the underlying cause of Markle’s depression and poor treatment by the royals.

Is coverage and placement of stories holistic? 

If a news publication only commits its key slots or placements to certain types of stories, it indicates a bias towards overreporting on some issues while neglecting others. For example, even in times of political turmoil, it is critical that “softer” stories about health, education, civic empowerment etc also get their fair share of coverage 

Example: The failure of most leading international news organizations to frontline the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Yemen shows a bias where human suffering in conflicted parts of the world becomes routine and not considered front-page worthy especially if it extends over long periods of time.

Objectivity is a lifelong process…

Once you develop a good bias radar in news coverage, seek out outlets that are transparent about their editorial choices, sources and decisions and are open to feedback from readers. Try not to over rely on a single publication or media personality for all your information. And last but not the least, engage with news organizations and give them feedback on stories you find useful and informative.

Remember, recognizing and unlearning bias is a lifelong process for both publishers and readers – and open, transparent communication on both ends can raise the bar for storytelling as a whole.

This guest post is a part of The Tempest’s collaboration with The NewsRun. For the next month, we are working together to encourage mindful and smart news consumption.

  • Sarah Munir

    Sarah Munir is a digital journalist with a focus on the intersection of technology and media. She has worked with several publications including Facebook, Forbes, Dawn, and most recently Twitter.