People are, by definition, subjective. Each of us has our own lens on the world, filtering experience and information through our own individual psyches. That’s what makes us human, rather than robots. But that doesn’t mean we’re always, necessarily, biased. Bias denotes a pattern of thinking and behavior that manifests repeatedly over time. For instance, a person could be biased toward Japanese cars and buy only Toyotas and Hondas, and ignore any evidence that American or German cars may be just as good, affordable or stylish. And certainly, someone could be biased politically, always favoring one party over another, regardless of who is on the ticket. But we can also be discerning, critical thinkers, capable of allowing new evidence and information to complicate our existing views.
That latter quality describes the best journalists, and coupled with the journalistic best practices of proper sourcing, getting all sides of a story and simply sticking to the facts, it helps to instill trust in news consumers. But it has to be evident, not merely presumed. In other words, we all need to hold journalists to those standards, and we can do that by looking for evidence of unbiased coverage in their work.
What does that look like?
A few markers:
- Multiple bylines. In recent years, we’ve been seeing more and more bylines on news articles, particularly ones about politics and other sensitive, contentious issues. This offers assurance of a kind of internal peer review process whereby the reporters on a given piece hold each other accountable and helps to safeguard against the story being told through just one subjective lens.
- Adherence to fact. Sometimes we have to look for what isn’t there. In the case of bias, we want to look for a lack of opinionated phrases and words in non-opinion writing, i.e. anything that betrays a writer’s individual perspective — “the president should…” or “obviously this means that…” Language is critical when evaluating a journalist’s integrity.
- Balance. Balance is tricky because it isn’t always 100 percent necessary, as with topics where the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of one side of a debate, such as climate change or the Holocaust. For most topics, however, we should expect to see all sides of an issue represented. A reporter’s job is not to persuade, but to inform.
- Transparency. Some stories omit a side of the story for reasons beyond the journalist’s control, namely when a key subject does not call the reporter back. In such instances, a journalist should indicate that this effort was made, and what the outcome was.
That said, perception is another matter altogether. There will always be people who claim bias exists in the media, particularly when the coverage does not jibe with their personal views or desires. And sometimes journalists at reputable publications do betray their political allegiances in how they might frame a story, omit a key fact or otherwise present their reporting.
But we have the ability and, indeed, the obligation to hold journalists accountable just as we should expect them to hold people in power accountable. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) offers some useful tips on how to detect bias in the news media. In those instances when journalists rely more on their own subjective lenses than on journalistic best practices, we should be empowered to spot it and express our displeasure to that outlet.
But again, we should first be sure that what we’re seeing is actually bias and not merely information we don’t like.