The Media, Bias and Fake News

In a media environment awash with fake news, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, how can a reader or viewer be sure that the information they are getting is true and unbiased?

Fake news seems to be news which is not true in any shape or form and is designed to mislead you. It now seems to be an umbrella term for a lot of different kinds of bad quality information. Misinformation is information which is wrong, perhaps inadvertently. Disinformation is deliberately designed to mislead you about something. This is what fake news was before the term was invented, though fake news can be created by anyone, while disinformation has an organisation behind it, creating the disinformation to achieve a particular purpose; disinformation is fake news as an instrument of a conspiracy. Propaganda is official state sanctioned information which can be false or just biased towards one side, or just relentlessly focused on one favourable aspect of an issue.

The most common suggestion of how to deal with this tide of poor-quality information to rely on the reputation of the source. If the source is reputable the thinking goes, then the information is likely to be true and accurate. However, if the information is official propaganda, or officially-produced-reputably-published disinformation, or false or fake information published in otherwise reputable publications for nefarious purposes by mistake, then the reputation of the source or the publisher is not going to help you.

There are many cases of individuals publishing different kinds of fake news in otherwise ‘reputable’ publications.

  • Jayson Thomas Blair worked for the prestigious New York Times until May 2003, when it was determined that he fabricated quotes and facts for his articles and plagiarised other.
  • Even earlier, Walter Duranty was an American journalist who served as Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times from 1922 to 1936. In 1932, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports about the Soviet Union which denied there was famine in the USSR in general and the Holodomor in the Ukraine in particular.
  • Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London, played a hoax on Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies in 1996 by submitting a nonsensical article which was published by the journal.
  • Andrew Jeremy Wakefield was a doctor who was struck off the medical register for his involvement in publishing an article in The Lancet, a leading medical Journal. The 1998 study falsely claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

While these individual ‘bad’ actors were eventually identified, what about institutions themselves?

  • The British government published Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government on 24 September 2002. It claimed Iraq possessed WMD, including chemical weapons and biological weapons. Newspapers and other media organisations reported the claims in the dossier, especially the sensational ’45 minutes to launch’ claim. All these claims were later determined to be either false or misleading in an official inquiry.

While academic journals are generally respected and are considered to be reputable, though with carrying degrees of reputation, can the studies which they publish, which pass peer review, be trusted?

  • In August 2015, Brian Nosek published the results of a study by a team to examine 100 studies from three high-ranking psychology journals. Of the 100 original studies 97 had significant effects, but in the attempt to replicate these the team only succeeded in showing significant effects in 36% of the replications, and the effect themselves were half the magnitude of the original effects reported. This is known as the replication crisis.

In short, we cannot rely on the reputation of an organisation or publication. Media organisations and publications which claim to be unbiased and neutral, like the BBC for example, are perhaps not as neutral as they think, as all organisations are made up of groups of people, and all people are biased in some way purely from their background, life experiences and education, and peer pressure.

Once we accept that everyone is biased in some ways and that there are bad actors and institutions working to misinform us (for whatever reason), then we can develop realistic strategies to deal with this.

The General and Specific Bias Matrix

We need to be concerned with two different kinds of bias.

General bias is the inherent bias which an individual or institution has. You should be aware of this when interacting with their information content.

Specific bias is the bias which is demonstrated in a particular written, spoken or visual text.  You should look out for indicators of bias as you process the text.

When evaluating general bias, we need to answer three core questions and develop litmus test questions which tell us how the individual, organisation or institution leans on specific questions, which will reveal their political and ideological biases.

The core questions are: ‘Where does the individual, institution or organisation get its funding?’ [Is it from the government or from advertising or from other sources?]; ‘Who is their target audience?’; and ‘What are the political views of their target audience?’ An individual, organisation, or institution will want to keep their paymasters and their audience happy. They will bend their bias towards the bias of these people.

As for the litmus test questions, we might think that someone’s attitude towards climate change might be a good indicator of where they stand on this question, and by implication other areas. We might therefore generate a litmus test question of ‘Does this individual/institution believe in the danger of climate change?’ We should generate a working set of such questions to ask about people and organisations to determine where on the political spectrum they lie on these and other issues, and how their bias compares with ours. We could then place them on the spectrum, using the conventional one: Far right, centre right, centre left, far left. And then you should check your placement with other people’s opinions.

When engaging with media of all kinds we need to regard it critically by thinking about these kinds of questions to identify specific biases in the piece:

How does the information in the text fit with other things I know?

Do I have confirmation of the accuracy of the information in this text from one or more other (ideally differently biased) sources?

Do I think the information in the text is true because it confirms with what I want to be true?

Conversely, do I want this information/idea/opinion to be untrue/wrong because it does not agree with what I already think?

Is the text supposed to be objective e.g. a new story or academic journal article? If so, does it use objective language? Or does it use emotive or opinion language?

What is the effect of word choice on the message of the text? If I replace a key word with a synonym, what is the effect on text meaning?

Does the text or the author appeal to authority or to being ‘on the right side of history’?

Does the text contain concessions or admissions against interest, or is the text completely one-sided?

We should have such a go-to set of questions which we have in our mental armoury to ask ourselves whenever we read a text. They won’t guard us against outright fraud, but they will make us more aware of different biases in the media we consume.

© Robert A. Buckmaster 2021