Bias is when you support or oppose someone or something based on your own opinion, regardless of the evidence. Media bias is when content spread by media reflects the interests of that company or its ownership. Corporations may have a clear bias for one political party or issue. A company may have its media outlets reflect that bias. Journalists or news outlets may favour one side of an issue and reflect that bias in the way they cover stories. Bias can be overcome by being aware of it and talking about it. And by listening to people from less privileged backgrounds.
Different Forms of Bias
Journalists are trained to detect bias and to keep it out of their stories. But there are several ways it can still creep into the news they produce.
- Bias by selection or omission: Journalists select or omit information as they decide what is most important. The choice to include or exclude things reflects a certain bias.
- Bias through placement: Journalists also decide how to “lead” a story. They choose which things to highlight first and how to present them. They often use an “inverted pyramid” structure. They start with a narrow focus on what they decide is the most important thing. Then they include more details to give a broader view of the topic.
- Bias by headline: A story’s headline may be all some people read. It plays a key role in shaping how a person sees a story; as good or bad, as scary or safe, etc. Some headlines are designed as “clickbait.” Their aim is to make people open the story. Clickbait headlines are often heavily skewed.
- Bias by word choice and tone: Subtle use of language can shape how readers interpret the news. Writing that someone “claimed” something puts doubt in the reader’s mind. Writing that saying someone “said” something does not.
- Bias by image: Photo editors pick an image to go with a story. Their choice helps shape how people read the story. For example, some stories about US president Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings ran photos of Trump yelling. Others ran photos of him looking stoic. The first image suggests he was angry. The other suggests he reacted calmly.
Privilege refers to advantages that come from being part of a dominant group in society. Privilege can lead to bias that a person is unaware of. This means the person sees their attitudes or ideas about another group as facts. People can have biases based on any marker that might divide someone into a different group. Biases against a minority group can create systemic barriers for people in that group.
Bias in Canadian Journalism
People, including journalists, can be politically biased. For decades, many newspapers openly leaned left or right. Today, there are left-leaning websites such as HuffPost and Salon. There are right-leaning sites like Drudge Report and Rebel News. Some studies have found that the CBC has a left-centre bias.
The fact that most journalists in Canada are white can lead to biased news on minority groups. People can overcome bias by being aware of it and talking about it. And by listening to people from less privileged backgrounds.
Media Ownership and Convergence
The interests and biases of media ownership can create bias in a company’s news outlet. Companies often own different kinds of media (e.g., news websites, radio stations, TV networks, etc.). That can narrow the range of opinion.
Like other countries, Canada has big corporations that own more than one news outlet. The Torstar Corporation owns the Toronto Star. It also runs more than 80 newspapers across Canada. The Postmedia Network Canada Corporation owns the National Post. It also owns a total of 140 outlets in print and online. The Postmedia Network is 98-per-cent owned by US hedge funds.
It is unlikely that bias can be completely removed from media companies or journalists. But a public that is media literate can better detect and object to those biases. Journalists who are aware of their own biases and privilege can ensure their reporting relies on facts and covers all sides of an issue.
See also Media Literacy; Media Convergence; Media Ownership; Politics and the Media; Media and the Law.