It’s estimated that U.S. adults consume media for an eye-popping 12 hours per day. Yet when it comes to news media in particular, Americans know very little about the forces that control the content that reaches their eyes. They fail to realize the content is extremely biased to suit a political or financial agenda.
Unfortunately, the majority of media we see today is not meant to honestly inform us or to better our lives, but to manipulate our emotions, thinking, and behavior so that those behind it can achieve political ends or help the media company to earn more advertising revenue. As someone who works to track media bias, I've identified eleven main types of media bias to watch out for. Here are the four most pervasive types:
We’re all familiar with tabloids in the checkout aisle sensationalizing, but many of us don’t realize that news outlets with seemingly trustworthy reputations do the same thing. Sensationalism is when information is presented in a way that gives a shock or makes a deep impression. Sensationalist language is dramatic, yet vague. It’s colorful and gives you a heightened sense of importance — even if the story, upon closer examination, doesn’t really warrant it.
Sensationalism is when information is presented in a way that gives a shock or makes a deep impression.
Because journalists earn advertising revenue when you click on their stories and see advertisements, sensationalism is often used to trigger your emotions — to get you to feel a heightened sense of fear, rage, excitement, disgust, or horror — so that you click. Cable news does the same thing — increasing your fear response so that you keep watching, seeking a resolution that never comes, and thereby continue to see advertisements.
There are keywords that can tip us off to sensationalism. Look out for words heavy with implications that can’t be objectively corroborated: “bombshell,” “slam,” “shocking,” “onslaught,” “destroy,” “desperate,” or “chaotic.”
When journalists put a “spin” on a story, they tilt the story in a specific direction to manipulate your view. Public relations executives used to be called “spin doctors” because they would strategically hide information so you’d buy a product or an idea about a company. It’s like a car salesman talking up how beautiful the car’s exterior is, but failing to mention a big problem under the hood. Journalists also do this to sell you a story. They’ll play up, downplay, ignore, or omit alternative perspectives or information in order to paint a certain picture.
When journalists “spin” a story, they tilt the story in a specific direction to manipulate your view.
Like sensationalism, we can look for keywords that tip us off to media bias by spin. Journalists will say something “emerged,” there was an “admission,” or something “came to light” — all ways to spin a story to make you believe something bad happened, even if other information may reveal that’s not the case. Journalists will often say someone “raged,” “went on a tirade,” “boasted,” or is “facing calls to…” to spin a caricature of the subject as angry, guilty, or bad.
Often, journalists substitute spin words and phrases for the word “said.” Instead of quoting a source and noting that they simply “said” or “told reporters” something and letting us decide what we think about the quote for ourselves, journalists will use words that imply guilt, such as “refuses to say,” “admitted,” “dodged,” or “conceded.”
Slant is when a reporter only tells part of a story. Journalists will cherry-pick data or information to support one side, or won’t interview any sources with a different perspective. This gives us a distorted, narrow understanding and makes us more likely to support a one-sided viewpoint. Often, you have to read a lot of different sources to discover what’s missing.
Slant is when a reporter only tells part of a story to support one side.
For example, a media outlet full of journalists who support policies that boost immigration may omit details, stories, or information about sex trafficking at the border.
Downplaying part of a story so that you become friendlier to a partisan agenda better suits the bottom line. But the end result is that we have a narrow view and are less informed.
4. Bias by Omission
Similar to slant, reporters have a negativity bias (bad news sells) and will choose not to cover certain stories or to omit information and perspectives that would support an alternative viewpoint, especially one that might make you feel more positively.
For example, a recent study found 90% of American news media’s COVID-19 coverage was negative — and much more negative than in other countries. Despite infection rates among students being low (.14%), we never hear about this when the media talks about closing or reopening schools — all we hear about are “superspreaders.” We also rarely hear about the large number of people who have already recovered or didn’t get very sick from COVID. The media is all doom and gloom because it makes you click.
The media is all doom and gloom because it makes you click.
Another example: Back when actor Jussie Smollett created his hate crime hoax, I read a CNN report that stated hate crimes were on the rise nationwide. However, CNN omitted the fact that 1,000 more agencies were reporting information that year than they had in years past. This additional fact makes it unclear as to whether hate crimes were actually on the rise, as CNN claimed, or whether they simply appeared to be rising because more agencies were reporting. Bias by omission can distort reality and make things seem more negative because it prevents us from getting the full view.
The media is more pervasive in our lives than at any other time in human history. TVs blare at us from bars, restaurants, airports — even at the gas pump. Each of us carries around pocket computers that put the media at our fingertips 24/7. But amidst this onslaught of information, we have a duty to apply critical thought to what we consume, rather than just passively believing what we see and are told. Understanding how media bias works is step one.