How To Detect Bias In News
Fairness and Accuracy in
Media have tremendous power in setting
cultural guidelines and in shaping political discourse. It is
essential that news media, along with other institutions, are
challenged to be fair and accurate. The first step in challenging
biased news coverage is documenting bias. Here are some questions
to ask yourself about newspaper, TV and radio news.
Who are the sources?
Be aware of the political perspective
of the sources used in a story. Media over-rely on "official"
(government, corporate and establishment think tank) sources.
For instance, FAIR found that in 40 months of Nightline programming,
the most frequent guests were Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig,
Elliott Abrams and Jerry Falwell. Progressive and public interest
voices were grossly underrepresented.
To portray issues fairly and accurately,
media must broaden their spectrum of sources. Otherwise, they
serve merely as megaphones for those in power
* Count the number of corporate and government
sources versus the number of progressive, public interest, female
and minority voices. Demand mass media expand their rolodexes;
better yet, give them lists of progressive and public interest
experts in the community.
Is there a lack of diversity?
What is the race and gender diversity
at the news outlet you watch compared to the communities it serves?
How many producers, editors or decision-makers at news outlets
are women, people of color or openly gay or lesbian? In order
to fairly represent different communities, news outlets should
have members of those communities in decision-making positions.
How many of the experts these news outlets
cite are women and people of color? FAIR's 40-month survey of
Nightline found its U.S. guests to be 92 percent white and 89
percent male. A similar survey of PBS's NewsHour found its guest
list was 90 percent white and 87 percent male.
* Demand that the media you consume reflect
the diversity of the public they serve. Call or write media outlets
every time you see an all-male or all-white panel of experts discussing
issues that affect women and people of color.
From whose point of view is the news reported?
Political coverage often focuses on how
issues affect politicians or corporate executives rather than
those directly affected by the issue. For example, many stories
on parental notification of abortion emphasized the "tough
choice" confronting male politicians while quoting no women
under 1 8--those with the most at stake in the debate. Economics
coverage usually looks at how events impact stockholders rather
than workers or consumers.
* Demand that those affected by the issue
have a voice in coverage.
Are there double standards?
Do media hold some people to one standard
while using a different standard for other groups? Youth of color
who commit crimes are referred to as "superpredators,"
whereas adult criminals who commit white-collar crimes are often
portrayed as having been tragically been led astray. Think tanks
partly funded by unions are often identified as "labor-backed"
while think tanks heavily funded by business interests are usually
not identified as "corporate-backed."
* Expose the double standard by coming
up with a parallel example or citing similar stories that were
Do stereotypes skew coverage?
Does coverage of the drug crisis focus
almost exclusively on African Americans, despite the fact that
the vast majority of drug users are white? Does coverage of women
on welfare focus overwhelmingly on African-American women, despite
the fact that the majority of welfare recipients are not black?
Are lesbians portrayed as "man-hating" and gay men portrayed
as "sexual predators" (even though a child is 100 times
more likely to be molested by a family member than by an unrelated
gay adult-Denver Post, 9128192) ?
* Educate journalists about misconceptions
involved in stereotypes, and about how stereotypes characterize
What are the unchallenged assumptions?
Often the most important message of a
story is not explicitly stated. For instance, in coverage of women
on welfare, the age at which a woman had her first child will
often be reported-the implication being that the woman's sexual
"promiscuity," rather than institutional economic factors,
are responsible for her plight.
Coverage of rape trials will often focus
on a woman's sexual history as though it calls her credibility
into question. After the arrest of William Kennedy Smith, a New
York Times article (4/17/91) dredged up a host of irrelevant personal
details about his accuser, including the facts that she had skipped
classes in the 9th grade, had received several speeding tickets
and-when on a date-had talked to other men.
* Challenge the assumption directly. Often
bringing assumptions to the surface will demonstrate their absurdity.
Most reporters, for example, will not say directly that a woman
deserved to be raped because of what she was wearing.
Is the language loaded?
When media adopt loaded terminology, they
help shape public opinion. For instance, media often use the right-wing
buzzword "racial preference" to refer to affirmative
action programs. Polls show that this decision makes a huge difference
in how the issue is perceived: A 1992 Louis Harris poll, for example,
found that 70 percent said they favored "affirmative action"
while only 46 percent favored "racial preference programs."
* Demonstrate how the language chosen
gives people an inaccurate impression of the issue, program or
Is there a lack of context?
Coverage of so-called "reverse discrimination"
usually fails to focus on any of the institutional factors which
gives power to prejudice, such as larger issues of economic inequality
and institutional racism. Coverage of hate speech against gays
and lesbians often fails to mention increases in gay-bashing and
how the two might be related.
* Provide the context. Communicate to
the journalist, or write a letter to the editor that includes
the relevant information.
Do the headlines and stories match?
Usually headlines are not written by the
reporter. Since many people just skim headlines, misleading headlines
have a significant impact. A classic case: In a New York Times
article on the June 1988 U.S.-Soviet summit in Moscow, Margaret
Thatcher was quoted as saying of Reagan, "Poor dear, there's
nothing between his ears." The Times headline: "Thatcher
Salute to the Reagan Years."
* Call or write the newspaper and point
out the contradiction.
Are stories on important issues featured
Look at where stories appear. Newspaper
articles on the most widely read pages (the front pages and the
editorial pages) and lead stories on television and radio will
have the greatest influence on public opinion.
* When you see a story on government officials
engaged in activities that violate the Constitution on page A29,
call the newspaper and object. Let the paper know how important
you feel an issue is and demand that important stories get prominent