News Source "Starter Pack"

"Media" bias is a big topic. It's impossible to comprehensively cover it in one blog post, but I'm going to attempt a summary on how how we can navigate "the media" and find more reliable information. For a summary, this is a long read and please consider this your "understanding media bias and learning to read around it starter pack." After we discuss what media bias looks like, I'll give a couple resources to guide us towards a more well-rounded view of current events.

But first, I nerd.

The statement "The media is biased!" takes a little bit of journalistic history to break down. First thing to consider is that "media bias" is a tale as old as the printing press. Publishers and journalists and citizens have always clashed out what is honest and newsworthy as long as newspapers have been around. Even in fiction, G.K. Chesterton created a character of an editor who glosses religion out of the stories to serve the overall "mission" of the newspaper - and that was set in London about 100 years ago!

The idea of an "unbiased media" is an ideal that is rooted in the hope for a better informed public. In America, order for a democracy to be at its best, the citizen needs access to the best information possible about the country, especially during elections when we choose our leaders.

Because human beings are remarkably good at falling short of our ideals, a truly "unbiased media" across a culture has never existed, anywhere, ever. However, some news publications hold to that ideal and do their best to achieve it and others just don't even bother. Many roll in the middle. Because our American gold standard for journalism is "unbiased," we can feel disappointed and betrayed when we catch bias in an article. But I'll argue that if we look for truly unbiased journalists and publications, we're looking for unicorns. It might be more productive to accept that some journalists and publications are better at setting aside their biases than others. Rather than look for unicorns, look for really nice, healthy horses instead.

That said, we can get further in understanding our media environment by understanding the lean of the publication we're reading. A "lean" isn't the same as a "skew." I read The New York Times and watch the PBS Newshour understanding they tend to lean left. While I don't agree with the all opinions, I can still respect the perspectives the writers bring to the conversation. However, there are plenty of publications and websites that tip from "lean" - which means presenting the information credibly although they may give away the influence of their own perspectives - to "skew" - which means twisting the information to conform to their worldview, to the point where facts become secondary to the agenda they're trying to press. Sources can also skew by presenting an article that has all the "facts" but omits important information that gives context to the story. So you can "fact check" the article and it'll come up legit, but it turns out to be holding back some of the most important things you need to know about the topic.

The most important thing to consider when it comes to "media bias" is that it isn't helpful to decide one source is biased and then throw it out and trade it for another source that is simply biased in another direction. If we're honest with ourselves,we want read sources that align most closely with our own views but that doesn't mean we'll get the most accurate information. In fact, that media strategy could set us up to get duped because the more likely we are to shut out views we disagree with, the more likely we are to miss it when the sources we follow are screaming bias and we end up falling for inaccurate information because we never hear a critique of the our own side. If we add some sources opposite of our usual lean to our media diet, then we get a taste for what's going on in the other camp and they might have some good points worth listening to. Not to say you have to agree with everything you read, but it's a good exercise to hear out someone we disagree with once in awhile.

So moving to the practical side of things, how do we recognize bias in articles and know if we're getting an accurate representation of the facts or not? While this is another huge topic that I'm going to have to peck at over time, to tide us over, I'm going to share a couple sources I've found that help us find more well-rounded perspectives on our information - keeping in mind we're not going to find unicorns of journalistic perfection as long as human beings are in charge.

The Factual.

The Factual is taking an interesting approach to analyzing journalism for credibility - algorithm. It uses a "robot" to analysis an article for things like biased language and number of sources and gives it a "credibility rating." After collecting data on thousands of articles, it rates the different publications, authors, and articles based on these data-driven ratings. So if you see the rating or label put on a publication, it's just based on the data they've collected over time. If the publication or reporter has a low or high "credibility rating," it's not because the creators of the site like or dislike it, it's because of how the data accumulated. (You can read more about their system here.)

As someone with a background in journalism, I'm skeptical of how well a computer formula can rate the articles accurately. However, I'll follow that with two caveats - first, it's only my personal hesitance because this is a fairly new idea in evaluating journalism and I think it's wise to approach it critically. With that in mind, I respect that The Factual is very transparent about their processes and open to criticism of their ratings, which shows they aren't considering their data the end-all of the conversation. Their website also offers a lot of information on better understanding media bias, which you may find helpful if you'd like to learn more about better understanding what you're reading.

Second, my favorite thing about The Factual is their daily email newsletter because we get a well-rounded perspective on a topic. In this email, they pick 3 big news stories and present 3 articles on the topic. The first is the article on the subject that had the highest "credibility rating" and label it with the general lean of the publication. It might say an article has a 84% rating from a "moderate left" publication but it immediately follows with another article from a publication on the other side of the political spectrum. So if a "moderate left" publication happened to come out on top that day, it will be immediately followed by an article from the somewhere on the "right" and vice versa. Then it will be followed but a "Long Read" which is a article with a decent "credibility rating" that is more like investigative journalism that will cover the issue from a more in-depth perspective. So if you scan the newsletter, you'll see the highest rated article from both sides and another article that will let you learn more about the topic. Here's screenshots from their September 3, 2020 newsletter to give an example of how they present the topic.

A subscription of The Factual is only $12 a year. That's on the level where you can give a try and see if you find it helpful or not. If you don't, you're only out a buck a month.

One more thought about their ratings. Earlier when I was talking about "lean" and "skew," if you're looking at way The Factual rates articles, "moderate" is more of the lean. As in they usually have solid articles but tend to scoot left or right a bit. Once you get passed the "moderate" ratings, the article is more in danger of getting into skew territory. However, it's possible for a "right" or "left" publication to set aside an agenda and write a solid article. That's why the "credibility ratings" are helpful; it shows when articles in a publication we tend to disagree with might be worth giving a chance.

BONUS: The Conversation

The reason I bring The Conversation into this, well, conversation, is because it's not traditional journalism and doesn't claim to be. Instead, it's written by academics who are sharing their research in a way that someone who isn't an expert in the field can understand. If you're looking for a source that can help us understand an issue on a deeper level, then The Conversation has articles written the biggest nerds you'll find on the subject.

When it comes to bias, The Conversation isn't supposed to be read as articles that are the end-all on any given issues. The articles are the writers' perspective to share what they've discovered as they studying some a topic in depth Again, we're not obligated to approach the articles with a full buy-in - that's why the website is called The Conversation. It's supposed to offer information and perspectives that enhance our conversations around the topic. I find it refreshing to find a source that isn't dead-set on being right and ending the discussion on an issue, but about sharing the perspectives of people who spend lots of time learning and thinking about a wide variety of topics. For the current climate, they have a Politics 2020 section.

I'll add more sources to this as they come up, but there's a start! Let me know if you find any of this helpful!