Social Media Means Journalists Should Work Harder Than Ever To Avoid Media Bias

December 11, 2015

Set of Today Show seen through iPhone

What is Media Bias?

As a journalism student, you’ve probably learned a lot about objectivity (what all reporters are supposed to have) and media bias (what you want to avoid). Despite the fact that most journalism schools cover the subject of media bias, the topic is a growing concern for journalists—and future journalists—in the digital age.

Media bias is generally defined as journalists or news organization selecting and covering stories based on their own opinions or preferences. This may mean they choose not to cover a story, or that they spend less time on it than other topics. Or it may mean they cover a story in a way that unfairly portrays a person or situation involved in the story.

But What Counts As Media Bias?

Some examples of situations that often spark accusations of media bias:

  • Politics—one of the most frequent reasons , usually relating to the amount of time spent on different sides of an issue or the perceived slant of a story about a politician or issue.
  • Race/gender/religion/sexual orientation—viewers sometimes question whether one of these characteristics affects a news organization’s coverage of a story, such as the recent controversy over the New York Times’ coverage of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado.
  • Parent companies and advertisers—sometimes viewers think a media organization’s coverage of a story is biased because it involves an advertiser or parent company of the media organization.
  • Personal biases of the reporter—sometimes audience members perceive bias because the reporter has a personal relationship with someone or something involved in the story.

How Do I Avoid Media Bias?

When studying journalism, one of the first things you learn about objectivity is that no one is ever really completely objective. We all have opinions about the people and situations we encounter every day. As a reporter, your job is not to let those opinions affect how you cover stories.

Most likely, you learned in your journalism classes that you can do this by sticking to the facts—just report who, what, when, why, where, and how, and let the audience form their own opinions. Sounds simple, right?

But in the real world, things are not always simple. Sometimes, as in the case of the New York Times article about the Planned Parenthood shooting, audience members perceive bias based on word choices. The original version of the Times’ profile on the man arrested for the shooting read, “Acquaintances described John L. Dear, Jr., who was arrested in a fatal rampage at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, as a gentle loner…. “

The profile was clearly complicated, since Dear wasn’t available for an interview, and the Times reporter’s job was, essentially, to interview people who knew the subject and form a picture of the man.

Was using the word “gentle” problematic? It certainly made some readers angry. Many people posted sarcastic tweets about the juxtaposition between “gentle” and “killed three and wounded nine”. Others thought Dear would have been described differently if he wasn’t a white male. Still others thought the Times was sympathizing with Dear.

But we’ve all read articles or seen TV interviews where a neighbor described someone arrested for murder as “such a nice man, I just can’t believe it.” Why don’t those stories incite complaints of media bias?

The problem perceived by some readers most likely arose from the phrasing. Technically, the article did say “acquaintances describe,” clearly not expressing the opinion of the paper or journalist—right?

Well, maybe. “Acquaintances” is a little vague, and suggests the description is a summation of what the reporter gleaned from interviewing many people. Had the article instead quoted a specific person saying, “he was a gentle loner,” it might have been received very differently. If three different people used the word “gentle” to describe Dear, they should all have been quoted separately.

Ultimately, the Times changed the description (removing “gentle”) without comment. (The updated article here quotes several people who called Dear a loner, but none uses the word “gentle”.) Whether they genuinely felt they’d made a mistake or they were simply tired of being the news story, we’ll probably never know.

What Can I Do?

When covering politics, be sure to cover both angles as equally as you can. When describing a politician’s intentions, the best bet is to use a soundbite from him or her. If video or audio is not available, let your audience know you are quoting directly from the candidate or an official press release. If you have a personal connection to a story, tell the person making the assignment. If he or she wants you to cover it anyway, it’s generally a good idea to give the audience full disclosure that one of the people involved is your cousin, close friend, etc.

What If Do That And Someone Still Complains Of Media Bias?

In today’s online world of social media and viral videos, people can get offended by just about anything, and more than one person has accused a media organization of bias simply because he or she didn’t like the facts presented in the story. You should always check your facts and present them in as objective a manner as possible, but even that doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid complaints of bias.

Another very important thing you can do to minimize potential problems is always be ready to explain your choices if questioned. Ask yourself why you are choosing to spend more time on one story than another, or why you chose certain words in describing a person or situation. This not only helps improve your objectivity, but it will also make things go more smoothly if a story you cover is ever called into question. Here are some examples:

“If you watch the beginning of the report, you’ll hear me say that I’m quoting John Doe, an organizer of today’s political rally. Due to our severe weather coverage, we didn’t have time to air my full interview with Mr. Doe as planned, but you can watch it on our website.”

“We spent more time covering Candidate X today because she made a campaign stop here in town. When a national political candidate from either party visits our area, we consider that newsworthy, and we plan to cover Candidate Y’s campaign stop here next week. We also interviewed supporters of both Candidate X and Candidate Y to get their reaction to Candidate X’s visit today.”

While that might not eliminate claims of bias, it does show that you are aware of such criticism and how your news organization works to avoid bias.

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[su_note]Learn more about the School of Broadcast Journalism at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.[/su_note]