Shaping Perception: the toxic effects of media bias

The number of people who rely on social media for sourcing news is higher than ever. These sources of information come by that influence and form our belief, and in some instances, very strong beliefs. Recognizing how our perceptions are shaped by the media and how to filter out the noise can assure viewers are informed, rather than manipulated. 

The amount of people sourcing news from social media increased 10% from 2016 to 2018, according to Pew Research Center. In 2019, they reported over 80% of Americans get their news from a digital device of some sort.  Interestingly enough, 72% of Americans believe that traditional news is fake or otherwise biased, despite so many getting their news from social media. According to Allsides, Media bias is where news outlets present their information in a way to reinforce certain viewpoints, preferences, or ideologies.  The news outlets  report with a slant to one side of the political spectrum or the other, instead of reporting objectively with facts only.   

Not all bias is bad. Opinion pieces can influence our perspective by providing analysis stemming from a variety of viewpoints. However, when bias is not disclosed, news sources are manipulating readers to support their own agenda. 

People are aware of this phenomenon,  but if they doubt the validity of their news outlets, why do they keep coming back to them?  

This backwards phenomenon can be traced to something referred to as motivated reasoning.  Motivated reasoning is where the subconscious mind and predetermined beliefs shape and warp information consumption.  It sorts information into “good” and “bad” evidence.  Everyone wants to be proven right, and whether people realize it or not, even the way they process information is inhibited by this state of mind.  Evidence that doesn’t support your beliefs is suppressed, so you still consider yourself correct despite evidence opposing it. Think about when you’re watching your favorite football team play a game.  When the referee gives a yellow flag to the other team, you cheer, but when it’s against your team, suddenly the ref is wrong; the call wasn’t correct, and they’re unfit for their position.

With so much information available instantaneously, it’s important that we recognize media bias and how our own beliefs influence our media consumption.  Media outlets use “spin”, unclear and exaggerated language to dramatize a story.  There’s less of an emphasis on facts and more on sensationalism; a reader’s view and judgment is clouded and a person’s unable to come to a conclusion about a story.  Some examples of “spin words” are words like crucial, major, offensive, among others.  Being on the lookout for these problematic words can hint if an article is trying to manipulate your opinion.  

Unsubstantiated Claims are claims that authors make without supporting evidence either in a headline or in the actual article.  All claims need to be supported by evidence, but in these situations, authors overlook the evidence and jump straight to the conclusion.  There are some cases where whole media outlets publish made up stories or fake news.  For example they might say that the president is unable to perform his/her duty, but never provide evidence of political failures in the past.  Looking for evidence and backing up claims in an article is a good way to spot these unsubstantiated claims.

Bias by omission is just as dangerous in that it also leaves out important evidence.  In this instance, media outlets ignore all evidence supporting a different viewpoint, distorting the reader’s ability to interpret facts and events.  Perhaps an article would say that global warming is fake and provide evidence that cities around the world hit the highest snowfall on record.  What they wouldn’t include is that the temperatures are actually warmer than the year prior, with just more precipitation.  Check multiple news outlets with all sorts of views.  There will certainly be differences in what types of stories different outlets cover.

As important as it is to spot media bias, it’s just as important (if not more so) to see our own biases.  Even if we’re reading the most center spectrum article we can find, our own beliefs will still filter the information we choose to remember and forget.  There is good news.  If we recognize our tendencies to favor certain viewpoints, we can counter that by looking at sources that are opposite and using critical thinking to play “devil’s advocate”; trying to come at an argument from the other side.

Bias is everywhere.  Our media, our peers and especially ourselves.  What we all have in common is that bias is a very human trait, and we can’t get rid of it, but we can recognize it and counter it.  Through these means, we can soften our beliefs by recognizing each other, bringing our world a bit closer together.