The proliferation of news-sharing platforms has undeniably altered and expanded our information landscape. Interestingly, as our access to information has grown exponentially over the last 40 years, consumers have become increasingly distrustful of the news they read.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, while many of us are quick to distrust sources that challenge our core beliefs, we rarely doubt our own impartiality. As Jonathan Rothwell points out in “Biased News Media or Biased Readers?”, research shows that the more extreme one’s political views are, the more biased their ratings of news sources will be.“The bias [that] consumers bring with them distorts their rating of news content,” he writes, “and those who are most distrustful of the news media tend to be the most biased readers.”
It’s easy to get caught in this self-reinforcing cycle of confirmation bias, in which we the consumers reject and mistrust sources that challenge our beliefs and trust and seek out those that confirm them.
This bias cycle is again reinforced by our engagement with like-minded individuals on social media networks. Jonathan Morgan, a senior design researcher with the Wikimedia Foundation, is concerned about current trends in media consumption.
In a conversation with Pew Research, Jonathan highlighted the increasing use of social media to spread disinformation and undermine people’s trust. “These platforms were not designed to be ‘digital commons,” he explained, continuing “[They] are not equally accessible to everyone and are not run for the sake of promoting social welfare or broad-based civic participation.”
In short, many of the platforms on which we access our news routinely promote biased information. But Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and Consulting Professor at the School of Engineering at Stanford University, offers a more optimistic view:
“There is a long history of new media forms creating initial chaos upon introduction,” he explains, “and then being assimilated into society as a positive force. This is precisely what happened with print in the early 1500s and with newspapers over a century ago. New technologies are like wild animals – it takes time for cultures to tame them.”
So what do we need in order to tame and manage our expansive and unruly media landscape?
We often absorb news passively—we scroll through our news feeds or browse headlines. The Nielsen Norman Group used eye tracking information to analyze news reading patterns of 120 individuals. They found that 57% of viewing time was dedicated to content above the fold and most individuals rarely get to content three scrolls away. To successfully navigate our current information landscape, we must be active news consumers and read beyond the headlines.
Here are three simple steps that can help us take more responsibility for our news consumption and counteract the pervasive culture of bias, distrust, and misinformation.
STEP ONE: Be willing to have your beliefs challenged.
In their book How to Detect Media Bias and Propaganda in National and World News, authors Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder explain how the “uncritical mind” identifies truth using the following basic maxims:
- “It’s true if I believe it.”
- “It’s true if we believe it.”
- “It’s true if we want to believe it.”
- “It’s true if it serves our vested interest to believe it.”
Addressing media bias requires us to turn on our “critical mind” in order to confront our own biases and instead seek out facts by using these “instinct-correcting” maxims:
- “I believe it, but it may not be true.”
- “We believe it, but we may be wrong.”
- “We want to believe it, but we may be prejudiced by our desire [for it to be true].”
- “It serves our vested interest to believe it, but our vested interest has nothing to do with the truth.”
By looking for opportunities to be proven wrong instead of proven right, we can help mitigate our tendency towards confirmation bias.
STEP TWO: Look critically at all news media, especially your own.
Know Where You Stand: Where do your preferred media sources fall on the political spectrum? Explore these media bias resources produced by Mediafactcheckbias, AllSides, and Ad Fontes Media to check out the balance of your own media diet.
Understand Types of Bias: Just because your favorite news sources lean left or right, doesn’t mean you need to break up with them. By developing awareness of different types of media bias, you can more easily protect yourself from potential manipulation.
Practice Posing Critical Questions: Develop 3-5 critical questions to ask yourself as you read the news. Here are a few examples:
- Who and what are the cited sources and why should I believe them?
- What facts does the author include? What facts do they omit?
- What words does the author use that have positive or negative connotations?
- What impression would I have if different words had been used?
- What additional information do I need in order to develop an informed opinion?
STEP THREE: Seek out non-partisan, unbiased sources.
While bias exists in the media, there are a number of news platforms with the explicit mission of providing non-partisan news coverage.
- AllSides is an online news platform with a mission to “[st]rengthen our democratic republic by freeing people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world — and each other.” The site includes a “balanced search bar” that allows consumers to search information from all sides of the political spectrum in order to “get the full picture.”
- News Voice creates a personalized news feed by aggregating major international and independent media news sites. Each news story links to multiple perspectives and sources. The site is interactive with the option to comment and upvote articles you like or think are important.
- News and News is an online “independent and non-partisan news source that strives to be your antidote to the biased and made-up news epidemic.” It also includes a built-in bias meter, as well as a daily news quiz and optional daily newsletter.
- The Juice is one of the few online news platforms built for students. Each featured story is carefully selected and written by a team of educators and journalists to ensure content is fact-based, objective, and non-partisan.
Incorporating more non-partisan sources into your media diet is a tool to fact-check what you read and will help you learn from divergent perspectives.
Why does it matter?
A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center just before the election revealed that the majority of Trump and Biden supporters (85%) “cannot agree on basic facts about important issues facing the country,” a statistic that echoes results from a survey of Republican and Democratic voters in 2018.
Many of us seem to be operating in two distinct realities curated by our news platforms which continue to reflect our own beliefs back to us and disparage anyone who disagrees. If left to its own devices, our current media culture will continue to widen this dangerous partisan divide.
But while bias in the media is not within our control, our relationship with the media is.
Greater access to information does not necessarily translate into a more-informed population, so we have an individual and collective responsibility to be engaged consumers—to seek out unbiased information and to look critically at the sources that we most trust.
The choices we make have the power to move our communities and our country towards a political climate in which we are able to discuss shared values, find common ground, and, at the very least, start working with the same set of information.