Ways that bias can show up in news stories

  • Bias by emphasis or omission. When a source consistently gives special placement (for instance, lead stories) or attention to certain stories, or neglects to cover or include particular information about others, it may be displaying bias.
  • Bias in language. Pay attention to the words used to describe people and situations. The difference between a scavenger and a looter or a terrorist and a freedom fighter may indicate bias.
  • Bias in sourcing. Who is represented in the story? Who isn't? If a source consistently relies on information from corporate CEOs over labor advocates or prison reform activists instead of prison administrators, it may be biased.
  • Bias in numbers. What's the difference between 42% of Americans opposing the death penalty  and 48% of Americans favoring it? The way each emphasizes a particular point of view. Look for patterns in how numbers are presented.

What is media bias?

There are a number of tricky situations when it comes to evaluating news sources. Of these, media bias is one of the most difficult to identify and discuss. One person's example of bias may strike another person as simply being a different point of view.

Media bias

"Media bias," as defined in Wikipedia, is the bias -- or perceived bias -- of journalists and news producers within the mass media in the selection of events and stories that are reported and how they are covered. 

For example, if people describe The New York Times as "liberal," they are reflecting this concept of "media bias."

Therefore, high-quality journalism can reflect media bias. But let's take a closer look at what that means.

Is bias always bad?

No source (or human) completely eliminates bias. So bias is not inherently bad. In fact, it can even be helpful. An inclination to be skeptical of government or people in power could inspire an important investigative story. The American Press Institute suggests in their "Understanding Bias (Links to an external site.)" page that a good journalist works to manage bias, not eliminate it.

Part managing bias is being aware of it and investigating our own preconceived notions as rigorously as those of another person. In journalism, this includes diligently verifying information from all sides and balancing stories by including a variety of different perspectives. Editors and fact checkers also help to compensate for the biases of individual reporters. In the video above, reporters discuss how they manage their biases in the field. 

Here's a video (6:30 mins) in which journalists share how they work to minimize bias:

Click here for a video transcript of the video above.

If left unchecked, bias can become a problem. When existing prejudices or preferences result in a consistent pattern of unfairness toward a particular group, ideology, or thing, you may be looking at a news source that is no longer reliable.