When choosing an article as a source of information, it is necessary to assess the source’s motives for presenting the story in the way it is, much like when an investigator looks for motive in a murder case.
Each newspaper has its own end goals, and as many of our past articles have stated, there is no such thing as objective reporting. Media outlets can have a multitude of reasons for their subjective approaches, ranging from political affiliations to financial benefit. Any of these may lead to the use of “click-bait” or outrageous statements in the headlines.
While this can be problematic for many users, it does allow for a free market of information and is a pillar of our democratic societies. Therefore, you and I, as consumers of this information, must put the story together using all of the available information.
Several types of biases exist in the news arena, and today we will focus on the concept of “publication bias” concerning the use of headlines.
Publication bias occurs when a publisher omits or changes the information being published, as the actual events do not fit their set narrative.
A set narrative could be provided by the leaders of an organisation, or their financial constituents. Police brutality has become a recurring topic within political debates and rallies, often resulting in news outlets publishing stories about the events. The below diagram shows how six different news outlets cover the same story. They look at the public reaction to the Philadelphia police shooting of a knife-wielding Walter Wallace Jr.
On the left of the political spectrum there is ABC News, which refers to the public reaction as "social unrest". While this approach seems to identify the movement as peaceful yet forceful, ABC’s report does not refer to the violence and looting that did take place. This may be the result of the groups which initially began the protest being affiliated with left-wing policies, and therefore in an attempt at damage reduction, certain information was unreported.
It is necessary to understand that liberals are the loudest voice in Congress when it comes to talking about police brutality. Because of this, publicity of negative acts, such as looting, in support of a left orientated political agenda could be significantly damaging to the reputations of congress members or even to the chances of acquiring support for the implementation of favourable policies. This could have caused them to downplay the severity of the events that have taken place in Philadelphia since the killing of Walter Wallace Jr.
On the other hand, Fox News describes the movement as “looting and vandalism”. This use of vocabulary places the protestors in a negative light, discrediting them and their cause. From a wider perspective, it discredits those who may stand against police brutality and any new policies which may be invoked. It could be viewed as a gradual attempt to turn their readers against left-leaning policies, in favour of their own.
In the debate surrounding police brutality, the conservatives generally stand with the police as that is where a significant proportion of their support stems from, due to right-wing policies being statistically tougher on crime. Therefore, they are not far from taking advantage of a situation that may cause doubt in public trust in the left. In this instance, where no reference is made to any peaceful protests which would have taken place, the other extreme is demonstrated. Fox News, unlike ABC News who depicted the movement less harshly, could be seen as having exaggerated the situation. This essentially means that they have misinformed their readers in the same way the liberals do, just from a different perspective, creating an even bigger divide between the two groups.
These are two opposite statements from differently affiliated news outlets, both at the extreme. There are some news providers such as the BBC or The Wall Street Journal who claim themselves to be unbiased. However, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, they are still limited by the bias of writers, as well as the restricted amount of information caused by geographical location, or time limitations, among other things.
Bias is formed when a situation is only seen from one perspective, such as getting your information from a single news outlet. Bias in turn is dangerous as it makes forming a narrow and emotional response much easier. By using several sources that cover the same incident, we as readers can begin to build a neutral and informed opinion that can be constructive through direct action or simply informed voting.
For more resources on media bias, head to our Fake News & the Role of the Media section.