The press can and should focus on facts and be accurate, as demonstrated by our great guest writers, journalists G. Michael Killenberg and Rob Anderson, who recently wrote "Media Bias Exists, But It's Not That Simple" for the AllSides Perspectives blog about the Fox News (Right bias) defamation lawsuit and $787 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.
In their analysis, Killenberg and Anderson state that “bias involves some degree of inescapable and often innocent prejudgment and expectation.”
We at AllSides absolutely agree.
Where the writers differ from AllSides is implying that the only significant problems of bias and misinformation worth noting are some of the recent ones at Fox News, when in fact these problems exist across the spectrum in news media, social media, technology platforms and throughout the online world.
Those problems can be just as egregious and harmful to society, no matter which side they’re on. This is not an example of false equivalency, but a call to everyone to be aware of the dangers of bias and misinformation from across the spectrum, including from whichever group you individually favor.
It is important to understand that bias is all around us, and that it is not all intentional or even necessarily bad. But when we are caught in a filter bubble that reinforces or repeats one set of biases, whatever those biases might be, we all suffer real harm.
Bias, whether it is in favor of a particular political agenda, profit model, ethnicity, level of privilege, religion or other tribal community, is a widespread problem in news. The misinformation, disinformation and misleading narratives that accompany bias impact all of us. They lead people within their filter bubbles to become more extreme in whatever they believe, and less tolerant of any alternative idea or person that is different than they are. That impact is greater on us than we think. This drives much of the overwhelming polarization that plagues our society and threatens our democratic republic.
Charges of bias can also be used as a weapon, implying those people or that organization is biased, but me and my organization are all good. The obvious competitive rivalry and willingness to bash competition is so rampant in the news industry that it's almost comical. The absurdity and hypocrisy of it all is often lost in self-righteous indignation.
That does not mean that what Fox News did in fueling false election narratives was not egregious. It was, and they deserve the condemnation they are getting. And problems with bias and accuracy should be exposed.
In case you think Fox News and other outlets from the right are the only serious problem, here are some counterexamples.
The disinformation just before the election to dismiss a serious controversy that could have denied Joe Biden victory was also egregious. With no factual evidence whatsoever, but based purely on the opinions of clearly biased “experts,” news media and social media labeled the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop as a false Russian hoax. It even included a level of censorship never seen before in U.S. history – individual Americans were denied the freedom to share their thoughts on the topic as social media companies censored it.
Whether you like the results of the presidential election or not (I personally am not a Trump fan), we should all be alarmed with this unprecedented censorship in favor of one political candidate over another, and how that endangers our democratic system.
While the press and tech platforms that spread and enforced this misinformation of a Russian hoax now recognize it as such, the news media continue to ignore and downplay the underlying story. The same media outlets that devoted non-stop coverage to a litany of Trump controversies, some real and some imagined (like the false story originating from the New York Times (Lean Left bias) that a security officer was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by protestors during the Capitol protest), have now decided to ignore a huge controversy surrounding a seated President.
Would CNN (Lean Left bias) or MSNBC (Left bias) upset their viewers, or potentially lose money, if they focused on the Hunter Biden controversy? What if they did not repeat but opposed false claims by President Biden that post-COVID updates to election laws in some states reduced hours you could vote, or premature “debunkings” of the COVID-19 lab leak theory? Is their reluctance to go against their audience impacting their editorial decisions and overall credibility?
No wonder the U.S. has by far the lowest trust in its news media among 46 modern democracies worldwide.
Disinformation, which is the intentional publication and sharing of falsehoods, should not be tolerated. Deliberate use of misleading information, even if not strictly false, can be just as bad. False or misleading information that happened just due to the blind spots and biases of the journalists are also extremely bad – serious writers should do their homework and understand many sides of the story before they write about it.
(Journalists can use fast and easy services like AllSides Balanced Search and AllSides Topics to see multiple sides before they write something. Even on tight deadlines, journalists don’t have much of an excuse anymore for being biased or misleading due to their own ignorance of the particular topic.)
We agree that evaluating “media bias” is merely a starting point. But through story choice and bias by omission, many mainstream news sources are falling short of their mission to inform and empower readers.
This omission of perspectives is the result of natural human biases. That’s why we need to not only be aware of bias, but to also consciously seek out multiple perspectives.
Note that our bias ratings are not about assigning "guilt," but meant to be a tool to identify different perspectives and help news readers balance them out with other perspectives to ultimately get a more objective and accurate view of reality.
For AllSides at least, bias is not about blame or finding fault. It is about helping readers and our entire democracy see things more clearly, understand the issues and each other better.
In their article, Killenberg and Anderson also highlight the “ethical responsibility to stay alert to avoid one’s own confirmation bias, typical in journalism education.”
AllSides definitely supports the ethical responsibility and training to "report against their own assumptions" and avoid their own biases, and agree that it is becoming more and more rare in practice.
We also believe that awareness isn’t enough. There are additional practices that newsrooms should implement to guard against their own biases talking over news coverage, including multi-partisan review teams. Some major publications have diverse editorial boards, but they don’t have a say on what the newsroom does. Few balanced review teams exist in newsrooms anymore.
The press should help protect a functioning democracy. But is the modern press only protecting us from autocratic attacks from the right but ignoring autocratic attacks from the left, such as using race to divide and motivate people, or government money being given to companies that try to broadly censor conservative news sites?
Is a bias toward "official sources" also a bias toward the party in power, or especially the political party that believes in more centralized government power and control?
News media did an aggressive job of challenging official sources in the 1960’s and around the Vietnam War. In some cases, it does not seem to be doing that today, but rather the opposite by advocating an even greater acceptance of "official sources." Dissenting voices are always needed in newsrooms.
Killenberg and Anderson conclude that, “Cliches, generalizations, and shortsightedness won’t advance the deliberative dialogue needed for citizens to address the multiple issues dividing the nation—including media bias.”
On this, we at AllSides completely agree. Deeper discussion and consideration is needed, and that needs to be balanced and inclusive of multiple sides.
John Gable is the CEO and co-founder of AllSides. He has a Lean Right bias.