How to read the news - 3 ways to overcome bias

Out Group

Are you getting just one side of the story?

If you only read the news on Facebook, Twitter, the answer is certainly yes.1

Even if you get your news anywhere online, you might be doing it wrong. It’s not that every news media source is “biased” in some vicious way. It’s just that everyone has an angle. But with a critical eye, you can read the news well and get both sides of every story.

The veneer of objectivity may have sold well in newspapers and early in the Television Age. It doesn’t sell well in the Internet Age.

The reason is that there are (at least) two kinds of bias. One is intentional, wilful, and intellectually dishonest. This is the kind of bias you see produced by explicit propaganda machines.

The other kind of “bias” is unintentional, accidental, and can even be intellectually honest. You can quibble with my calling it “bias” – it is a certain kind of spin that can’t be avoided.

In this post, I explain 3 kinds of bias you can’t avoid, and 2 strategies for overcoming them by regularly reading from 4 news categories.

3 kinds of bias you can’t avoid

No matter how you present a story, there are three choices you have to make: you have to express the story in certain words and not others; you have to frame the story with a beginning and end; and you have to select which story to tell in the first place.

These are the three kinds of bias you can’t avoid.

  1. Selection bias – This is a kind of ommission. Why did you pick this story? You can only tell one story at a time, so why this one? Why pick out a story about police brutality, a story about Hilary’s lies, a story about endangered animals being killed – rather than some other story? Every outlet has to choose which stories to cover, and this is the beginning of their “angle.”
  2. Framing bias – This is, again, a necessity when telling a story. A story, like a picture, needs a frame. It’s just part of what it means to be a story. Nevertheless, this is a choice being made by the journalist or news media outlet. Is this a story that picks up a national narrative or cultural mythology?
  3. “Spin” (expression bias?) – using certain words to suggest a particular claim on reality without making the claim explicitly. Is the shooter a “terrorist” or “loan wolf”? Is the terrorist a “Islamist” or a “Muslim”? Is the 18-year victim of the police shooting a “unarmed teenager” or a “violent adult”?

For example, here are two ways to tell the story of 9/11 WITHOUT LYING.

  1. On September 11, 2001, after years of imperialist military intervention by foreign power, a group of Middle Eastern patriots sent a clear message to the U.S.: Stop invading us. These brave soldiers sacrified their lives to leave a mark on a great symbol of U.S. greed and capitalism. Using American airplanes instead of bombs, they hit the World Trade Center towers in New York, and left a scar on the American Empire that may never heal.
  2. On September 11, 2001, Islamist terrorism’s hatred of western civilization reached a new and terrible low. A group of Islamic supremecists hijacked three airplanes, and flew them into the World Trade Center (among others), murdering thousands of innocent people. They stirred the patriotic fervor of a nation, and initiated a decades long war on terror that continues to this day.

Which is right? #2 is right, but you can’t fully understand the truth if you only know one side of the story before you judge. (There is some truth to the idea of “blowback”, for instance.)

So the strategy for overcoming bias has to do with hearing both sides.

2 strategies for overcoming bias

Compare equal and opposite biases.

Study the conservative and liberal sources in their brightest expressions. Twitter, Facebook are echo chambers. You can’t get the other side there.

Look at red and white together, not pink. “[A clear thinker] has kept [contradictions] side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers.”(Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

And reflect on your own selection, framing, and spin. What is noteworthy to you? What would you have put in, left out? What do you really want to know?

Read all 4 categories.

Some news outlets are right-wing, others left-wing. Some are popular or lowbrow, others are more intellectual or high brow. See here for a graph graph

So, read all four.

  1. Popular, right wing (Drudge, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, The Blaze, Allen B. West)
  2. Popular, left wing (Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Politico, Salon, NPR, Slate)
  3. High brow, right wing (National Review, The Federalist, The American Conservative, First Things)
  4. High brow, left wing (New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic)

You could also read the mostly-centrist sources: Google News, Yahoo News. But only to check out what is missing from the left-right sources.

You could also read the mainstream media. But why would you? Sure, Fox is a mainstream rightist source, but you’ll get everything right-leaning from categories 1 and 3. And sure, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS are mainstream leftist sources, but you’ll get everything left leaning from categories 2 and 4.

I know, I know, [Breitbart/HuffPo] is just a [conservative/liberal] rag that propogates its own bias, and its so [right-wing/leftist] that it’s not worth considering their argument. That’s the point. Get

So, how do you read the news?

  1. Zuckerberg’s comment about media bias on Facebook “Trending” news: I want to share some thoughts on the discussion about Trending Topics. Facebook stands for giving everyone a voice. We believe the world is better when people from different backgrounds and with different ideas all have the power to share their thoughts and experiences. That’s what makes social media unique. We are one global community where anyone can share anything – from a loving photo of a mother and her baby to intellectual analysis of political events…” (more)