Newsweek magazine has brought the subject of media bias to the forefront with this week’s cover photo and headline. It features a photo of Republican congresswoman and presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann with a crazed look behind the intentionally nasty headline, “Queen of Rage.” Even the most naïve reader could not believe the article would be anything close to an evenhanded look at who Ms. Bachmann is and what she stands for.
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This might surprise some journalists, but readers/ viewers are much smarter than most of them think they are. They can spot media bias a mile off even when members of the media think they are getting away with it. Here are seven transparent ways media bias is detected by readers/ viewers and what journalists can do about it.
Context: A journalist might edit down a 25-word comment into 5 words to make someone they don’t like look foolish. What to do about it: Be honest and keep quotes and themes in context.
Facts: Recently MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow played a quote by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh which she said was “made earlier this week.” It wasn’t. It was made over a year earlier, and it is highly likely the host knew it when she played it. What to do about it: Report the facts even if they are not as you want them to be.
Freaks and fringers: Media bias is spotted immediately when a journalist seeks out the most ridiculous representation of a subject or group they are covering. It happened many times with the media coverage of the tea party rallies as well as the Wisconsin state legislature’s battle over union issues earlier this year. What to do about it: Get your information from serious representatives and not freaks and fringers.
Lead or bury: Your bias will be established by what you lead with and what you bury or fail to report. It’s not always about what you say but what you don’t say that reveals your bias. What to do about it: Tell the whole story, not just the part you want told.
Bogus spokesman: Just because someone says they are conservative or liberal does not make them so. The con usually comes from people who claim to be conservative when they are not. Meghan McCain, Ron Reagan and journalist David Frum come to mind. What to do about it: Don’t be naïve and check credentials before assigning labels.
Headlines: Newsweek’s “Queen of Rage” headline is a glaring example of media bias but there are many, many more. The front page of The Washington Post on August 3, 2010 reads, “Va. Driver had Record of DUIs Before Fatal Crash.” The story was about a drunken illegal alien who killed a nun but the headline writer did not like the sound of that headline. What to do about it: Write honest headlines.
Photos: You can tell the bias of an editor by looking at the kinds of photos he/she selects. Newsweek’s choice of the stern Bachman photo displayed their bias. A pro-Obama editor will use a charming picture of him while an anti-Obama editor will use an unattractive photo. Once again, they may think the readers/viewers don’t know what’s happening but they do. What to do about it: Use photos that tell the true story.
Don’t think you can sneak your bias into a story unnoticed. Your readers/viewers are smarter than you think and may even be smarter than you. Treat them with honest news coverage and recognize their intelligence. They will reward you with their loyalty and read your stuff with confidence.
If you can’t do that, admit your bias up front. Your candor will be refreshing to your readers.