There are more news sources available now than ever before. And while more options may seem like a good thing … the sheer number/type of media outlets also makes it more challenging to gauge which sources are fair, balanced and trustworthy.
So here are our best tips and tricks to tell if your news source is biased:
Is the language sensationalist?
Let’s be honest: the use of sensationalist and inflammatory language is everywhere right now (especially in the echo chambers of hyper-partisan liberal and conservative “news” outlets). Websites, podcasts and TV channels utilize language that carries an inflated sense of doom, urgency or importance to drive clicks, shares, views and comments.
Take, for example, the article below, which has the words “delusional” and “lunatic” in the headline, as well as “facts” in quotes, casting doubt on whether “left-wing fact-checkers” know what actual facts are.
These types of articles are opinion pieces but are often portrayed as news stories. This one comes from a site with “News” in its web address: Natural News. But the stories are primarily in the vein of this editorial (and conspiratorial) take.
This headline/subheadline from Vox also employs sensationalist, exaggerated language to make a point (let’s be clear: a “Trump judge” has not “seized control” of ICE, and President Biden is indeed still in charge of the executive branch):
In contrast, a balanced news source will use neutral, non-partisan language – describing what is happening rather than putting an interpretation on what is happening.
Are the photos preying on your emotions, or trying to push a certain story?
We all know that news companies use wording (in headlines, especially) to sway readers’ opinions. But words are not the only thing that can be misleading; sometimes photos can be biased too.
In the below picture, for example, right-leaning publication The Blaze chooses an angry-looking photo of Obama (as opposed to a neutral one) to accompany a story about Obamacare – implying that Obama might be upset with the court’s decision.
Another example comes from the left. Take a look at the below photo of Congressman Devin Nunes, an ally of President Trump. The publication Mother Jones has combined a sensationalist headline with a photo of Nunes looking guilty – which is designed to influence readers’ opinions about his behavior.
Has the news source omitted relevant information?
This is an example of why it’s important to read the news from multiple sides/points of view. If you only consume news from sources that lean right or left, you won’t know what news you’re not seeing – because biased news sources often ignore (or refrain from reporting on) news that contradicts their biases.
One recent example? This headline from the SF Chronicle: “‘Out of control’: Organized crime drives SF shoplifting, closing 17 Walgreens in five years.” That headline implies that Walgreen was forced to close 17 locations due to a surge in shoplifting.
The story gained even more traction when an ABC news story featured phone footage of a man shoplifting from a Walgreens in San Francisco while a security guard watched. According to FAIR, a company that tracks media bias, the video was published 309 times by various news outlets.
But there were two serious omissions that the public wasn't privy to. As pointed out by journalist Kyle Barry, the first was that Walgreens had ALREADY planned to close those stores as part of a plan to close hundreds of stores nationwide to cut costs. So while was inaccurate to imply that shoplifting in San Francisco caused the store closures.
The second omission was that none of the articles mentioned a court case Walgreens had recently agreed to settle after being sued for wage theft by California employees. In other words, the SF Chronicle deemed a story about shoplifting at Walgreens more newsworthy than a story about Walgreens not properly paying its employees.
Is the news source treating both sides as equally factual, when one side’s view is less supported by facts than the other?
This one is tricky because it can come from a place of good intent. News organizations should present multiple perspectives on an issue – when those perspectives are rooted in facts and critical thinking.
But it becomes a problem when a news source devotes too much coverage to propaganda, unfounded opinions or conspiracy theories (for example: the flat earth theory should probably be given very little journalistic weight, since it’s been clearly disproven by science over and over again).
This “false balance” problem is, at the least, sloppy journalism. But it also can be a sign of hidden bias. For example:
Sometimes a news source will consistently give equal time/attention to certain (unfounded, or conspiracy-based) opinions in order to push a political agenda. This is bad-faith “journalism:” an attempt to counteract the facts (that don’t match their worldview) by presenting unfounded opinions as deserving equal consideration.
Take, for example, news coverage on climate change. While the scientific community is virtually unanimous on humans’ contributions to global climate change, there are some scientists who disagree. But news sources will often present “both sides” by quoting a scientist with actual data on climate change and one who thinks it’s a hoax. This false balance serves to legitimize a take that has been resoundingly debunked.
A similar thing has happened with liberal activist Robert Kennedy, Jr. For years, Kennedy has been pushing the idea that vaccines cause autism – using “data” and ideas that have been debunked by the scientific community. But news platforms will often have him on to offer a “balanced” take on the supposed autism-vaccine connection.
FAIR points out, “When reporting gives as much voice to the truth as it does to lies and propaganda, it stokes a harmful debate and normalizes disinformation. “Objectivity” without accurate analysis is not ethical journalism.”
What sources are they referencing?
We know, we know: you don't want to do extra homework. But in today’s world, news consumers should take a peek at news stories’ sources/hyperlinks – because where/who they are getting their info from will tell you a lot about a media company’s potential biases.
For example: if many sources cited by an article are known to have a particular political skew, it’s likely the journalist is seeking to tilt the article in that direction. Also beware if there is an over-abundance of “unnamed” sources. Unless the journalist makes a disclaimer about the person not being authorized to speak on the record or specifies about their role (for example, “a senior advisor to the President”) it’s impossible to guarantee the veracity of the quote, or possible it does not come from people directly in the know.
Who owns the source?
Check to see who owns the news site you’re reading. If it's a figure/organization with a clear political bias, it’s worth asking yourself if that news source also leans to one side or the other. (Of course, just because a media organization is owned by someone who leans right/left doesn’t necessarily mean the organization itself is biased. But it is worth noting – because sometimes companies feel pressure to “match” the views of their owner.)
What ads are they running?
Take a peek at the types of ads that run on the site. Ads can tell you a lot about a news source’s potential biases (or the biases of their audience!).
Is the content sponsored or created by an advertiser?
(a.k.a., is it a paid post?)
Clever marketers try to squeak paid posts past readers by making them look like news … but paid posts are created by (or in conjunction with) a paying advertiser. Which means they are not “unbiased” – even though they might look like “regular” articles. Take, for example, the below pic: there’s a TEENY little note that says “paid post” with Chevron’s logo at the top. But otherwise it looks like a real article. (Well played, big oil, well played.)
Is there anything else I can do?
Today’s journalistic environment requires you to be a savvy news consumer. So we cannot stress these suggestions enough:
- Read news and opinion pieces from multiple perspectives so you can “see” bias more clearly
- If you consistently read news from one side of the political spectrum, seek out at least a few news sources from the “opposite side” that run counter to your beliefs/POV
- If you’re looking for facts, head to centrist publications to reduce the amount of “spin” on a story. You can figure out which news sources are centrist by heading to: