Want to be a believable Christian? Don’t be ill-informed. Here’s how to recognize and filter bias from the media.
“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” – George Bernard Shaw
Some people outside our faith view Christians as ill-informed fanatics spreading a dated message with no proof to support their beliefs. We make this perception worse when we spread false narratives, slanted ideas, and uninformed hearsay. This happens too often in the Christian community because we unwittingly trust our sources and are unable to spot bias in their message. This propagation of inaccurate or biased information destroys our integrity which makes acceptance of a faith-based message near impossible for non-believers.
All media sources are biased and present stories in a manner they believe will please readers and ensure their loyalty. Christians must know how to eliminate bias from information and decipher the narratives.
Are media stories with bias always wrong?
It’s important to understand that bias does not mean inaccuracy. Professional media outlets go to great lengths to report accurate information. Thus facts are always present in almost all professional sources. These facts can be extracted – if you can eliminate bias.
Similarly, in some instances, media bias can be harmless. For instance, a report on child abuse may say the following:
“A child should never be abused. Anyone who abuses a child should be punished.”
The above sentence is pure opinion and inherently biased. However, the bias is harmless. No reasonable person would expect the author to say anything else.
Are biased media sources always bad?
Some media sources are expected to be biased. For instance, liberal readers expect biased articles from Huffington Post and Mother Jones. Similarly, right-wing readers expect their views to be reinforced through biased reporting in The Epoch Times and Breitbart News. They want the news to agree with their viewpoints. It is the reason readers of these publications remain loyal readers. However, readers of these publications must be especially careful to recognize the bias. Given the degree of bias from these sources, readers should seek to balance the information with other sources, or they will be grossly underinformed.
How to filter out bias from professional media sources
Determine what kind of information it is.
To eliminate bias, you must first determine if the article an opinion piece or news reporting. News reporting offers facts. Opinion reporting offers an interpretation of facts. Bur sometime the inclusion of opinion will be found in news reports. Take this sentence for example:
“The US created 200,000 jobs in March because the United States is a successful democracy.”
The above sentence contains both a fact (“the US created 200,000 jobs in March”) and an opinion (“because the United States is a successful democracy”). A smart reader can isolate the facts (the number of jobs in March equals 200K) and eliminate the opinion to get a more accurate assessment of the news.
Here’s another example:
“The increase in US jobs was likely due to more favorable weather.”
In the above sentence, the writer was careful to include the word “likely” in their prose. The bias is there but intentionally pointed out by the author making it easier to identify. A more unbiased sentence would be:
“The increase in US jobs may have been due to more favorable weather.”
Review the headline below that appeared on the front page of the Daily Express. This is an egregious example of an opinion based headline. There is no fact here – only opinion. But if this “opinion” is accepted by the reader as fact, it impresses on the reader that a vote for May would preempt disaster.
What type of language does the source use?
Biased sources often use excessive adverbs and adjectives or subjective language in their reporting. In extremely biased sources, offensive language may even be used. The use of vague, dramatic, or sensational language is referred to as “spin”.
Sources may spin sentences to invoke a certain emotion.
“Pelosi couldn’t keep Rep. Ocasio-Cortez from setting off fresh waves of outrage.” – New York Post
In the above example, the writer uses sensationalist words (“outrage”) and emotional language (“fresh waves of”) to dramatize the piece and invoke emotion.
In this example, the following two real life headlines state the same fact – another Bill Cosby accuser was allowed to testify:
“Judge allows testimony of another accuser in Bill Cosby case.” – New York Times
“Bill Cosby sex assault trial: Judge allows only 1 other accuser to testify.” – SF Gage
The second headline includes the words “sex assault” in its language to invoke a reaction. It further stresses that only a single additional accuser was allowed to testify in order to suggest that the judge did not allow any more witnesses to come forward at a later time (which was not true). The second headline is factual but more biased and intended to stimulate emotion and hook the reader into reading the full story.
Here is a more blatant example of bias in a headline. Both headlines announce the selection of a new US Attorney General:
“Trump picks Sessions for Attorney General.” – CNN
“Career racist Jeff Sessions is Trump’s pick for Attorney General.” – The Intercept
The second headline clearly uses biased language while the first presents nothing but facts.
The Washington Post single-handedly provided two examples of bias in the same headline on the same day. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by U.S. forces, their headline initially read:
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State’s ‘terrorist-in-chief’, dies at 48.”
The headline does not mention that U.S. forces killed the ISIS leader which would have painted conservative leader, Donald Trump, in a better light. Later the headline was comically softened even further to the following in order to lessen the impact of the U.S. military’s success:
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State, dies at 48.”
Dallas police officer Amber Guyger said she entered Botham Shem Jean’s apartment by mistake and shot him thinking he was an intruder. Fox News reported the event using this headline:
“Police officer charged in shooting death of unarmed neighbor”
CNN however, used this headline saturated with emotional charge words to report the same event.
“Dallas police officer charged with manslaughter in fatal shooting of unarmed man in his own apartment”
One way to determine if the writing appeals more to emotions than logic, is to look for spin words such as these: serious, crucial, high-stakes, failure, tirade, landmark, major, offend, offensive, monumental, mocked, significant, raged, fumed, lashed out, scoffed, erupted, rant, boasted, gloated.
Take this cover page from the Boston Herald. No word evokes more emotion than “fail”. In this instance, the word is magnified through a specially selected photo of President Obama which makes him appear disappointed. The headline is blatantly biased to appeal to conservative readers of the Boston Herald.
What type of photos accompany the story?
Pay careful attention to the photos included in a story. Visual representations are powerful means to supply information. Media outlets carefully select the photographs and illustrations that accompany a story. But these photos capture a single moment in time and can easily make a person or thing look dangerous, scary, silly, etc. This is especially common in “comparison” photos where two pictures are presented side-by-side and the author wishes to present one of the pictures in a more favorable light.
Compare the cover pages from Time and Newsweek during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Both publications used the same photo but Time magazine uses a heavily-shaded photo and the word “tragedy” to enhance the dark drama. Newsweek lightened up the same photo to expose a blank, uncaring look on Simpson’s face accompanied by the emotional headline, “trail of blood”.
Below is a glaring example of racial bias often found in far right-wing publications. Both headlines are from the same publication and both report essentially the same type of crime and assailants. But the photos of the white men are taken from publicly available yearbook photos rather than their mugshots. This immediately promotes a degree of sympathy for the men.
Who are the sources of the information?
News reports should clearly state where the information they presented was obtained and readers should consider whether the source is reliable or not. If the source is left anonymous and vague, it should remain an open question in your mind instead of taken as fact. Here’s an example from The Hill after the infamous Jussie Smollet attack.
“Senator Harris condemned the violent attack on actor Jussie Smollet.” – The Hill
A more proper statement would have been:
“Senator Harris condemned the alleged attack on actor Jussie Smollet.”
Why is the word “alleged” important? The source in this instance was Jussie Smollet. There were no other witnesses to the attack. As it turns out, the attack was ultimately revealed to be a hoax created by Smollett himself and The Hill’s headline was egregiously wrong.
Compare this to the text-over below, ABC News was careful to include the word “allegedly” and use the word “claims” to emphasize the source of information is Smollett himself. This was a much more accurate headline, free from bias, that is intended to remind the viewer that the source of this information is Smollett, and that it has yet to be proven true.
In an example from Epoch Times, the writer purposely introduces bias by degrading the SPLC like this:
“Critics say the Montgomery, Alabama-based SPLC, whose founder Morris Dees was ousted earlier this year, treats all opposition to illegal immigration as hate speech.”
The Epoch Times writer refers to “critics” without specifically attributing the views to a specific person. The “critics” mentioned could be two uninformed people on the street. With no source named, we have no way to tell if the information is reliable or accurate.
In a similar act, the New York Times phrased an AG Barr criticism like this:
“Some of Mueller’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry.”
In the above example, the New York Times author references “some of Mueller’s investigators” without naming the investigators. This is a clear red flag that bias is included in the statements.
The post below is from Facebook and includes emotional text and photo. This post clearly targeted Christians and held credence with some because it was posted by a group known as the “Army of Jesus”. In truth, no reader knew who the “Army of Jesus” really was. Two years after this was posted, it was discovered that the “Army of Jesus” was really a Russian state-sponsored propaganda front used to influence the 2016 election.
What evidence is presented to back up the claims.
Good journalism always includes evidence to back up claims. Biased reports may make statements that appear to be fact but do not include evidence. For instance:
“Governor continues his longstanding pattern of excessive spending.”
In the above statement, did the writer provide proof that the spending was excessive? Did the writer supply evidence that the spending pattern was indeed “longstanding”? You must read statements such as this with a critical eye and avoid assuming the information presented is fact rather than opinion.
Can you see how a lack of evidence in this statement by the Washington Post promotes bias?
“If America’s household wealth were distributed evenly across the population, then every family of four would have a net worth of $1.2 million.”
The claim made in the headline is a bold one. Did the author note where he obtained his data? If not, you should consider the data questionable.
Does the story offer counterarguments or counterpoints?
Some publications will offer counterarguments, freely acknowledging that there may be differing opinions. The balance of viewpoints eliminates bias. However, many readers do not want to see both sides of the story. They want their existing viewpoints to be reinforced, not questioned. But if we do this, our information becomes skewed and our viewpoints will be twisted. We must accept that our opinion is not always the right one.
How extensive is the story?
Articles that have been researched extensively tend to be longer and include more facts. Contrary to popular opinion, this does not necessarily mean more facts equates to less bias. A writer that has immersed themselves in a subject will often see all viewpoints and develop their own point of view with regards to the subject matter. The opinion they formed is often introduced into the article as bias.
How was the story placed?
Story placement shows which stories the editor thinks is more important or most desirable to readers. Placement is a subjective measure of the story’s importance and is the most common type of bias. Stories “above the fold” are stories the media outlet really wants you to read or thinks you will enjoy.
Placement bias can also occur within the article itself. Viewpoints that are most desirable are placed first and will include more content than opposing views.
Here are the front pages of two sources taken from the same day. The ThinkProgress publication places more emphasis on LBGT issues and cuts to government programs. Epoch Times on the other hand, focuses on the arrests of illegal immigrants, and the building of the border wall.
What could have been left out of the story?
Finally, a writer can express bias by leaving out pieces of information. This is aggravatingly common in modern-day media. This cherry-picking of information to support one viewpoint is referred to as “slant”. Slant prevents the readers from getting the full story. Here’s an example from Fox News:
“Ocasio-Cortez, along with Sanders, has received intense criticism for policy proposals like the ‘Green New Deal’”. – Fox News
Although some may have criticized the politicians for their proposed “Green New Deal”, Fox News neglected to mention that the program was well received by many other groups of people and championed by many climate-change experts. There is a counterpoint to this story that is never presented to the reader.
Here’s another example of “bias by omission”. During President Donald Trump’s term, the stock market hit a record high. It was reported by the Wall Street Journal like this:
“Dow hits a record as U.S. outpaces world.”
The left-leaning Washington Post deemphasized the event, which was considered favorable to Donald Trump, with this softer headline:
“Extending last week’s run, U.S. markets closed at record highs.”
More astonishingly, the event was left completely unreported by several liberal (left) media outlets.
Without exposure to other sources of information, the reader will have no means to recognize the omission of information.
Compare the two cover pages below. Notice that the text below the headline is identical in each (the story was taken from a syndicated news feed) but the headlines leave out much information and are worded to slant the story.
The two cover pages below are another example of a headline leaving out much information and worded to capture the reader’s attention. If a reader skims the headline and neglects to read the article, they will have an entirely different perception of the facts.
Obtaining information from a variety of sources is the surest means to recognize bias in the information we obtain.
The best way to be properly informed is to obtain information from a variety of sources. There is no single authoritative source for any news and thus, it’s important we read a variety of viewpoints. This will expose us to opposing views which will help us perceive, and filter out, bias in reporting.
One way to do this is to practice reading the news without emotion. This may not be as enjoyable but reading the news with purposeful attention to facts is the clearest means to obtaining accurate information. Discard emotional words and read each sentence carefully with the sole purpose of extracting data from the content.
Read each article carefully, word by word. It’ll take time at first but as you become accustomed it will go much quicker and eventually become automatic. When reading, ask yourself, is the language meant to make a person look bad or good rather than just neutral. Identify the writer’s tone. Which way does it lean?
Think about how you feel after reading the article. Did it invoke emotion? How did it invoke emotion?
Find another reference with the same topic and read it thoroughly. How do the two sources differ in their reporting?
Christians have a responsibility to spread God’s word. But too often, we are so focused on the word of God that we neglect other sources of information. This can make us appear ignorant and ill-informed which hurts our cause. Whether we like it or not, we must educate ourselves and stay atop of current events. We can then infuse this knowledge in our message and enhance the reliability of our message.