How Biased Media Stole Reality

The media influences every aspect of our lives. In a world where we are connected for the most part of the day, the influence media have on every aspect of our lives is difficult to overestimate. According to a study published in PNAS (PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES), people exposed to repeated media coverage of a traumatic event (a bombing in this study) suffered higher acute stress than people that were at/near the bombing itself. When it comes to politics, being constantly exposed to media contents of high emotional impact affects our stress levels, and that does not help in analyzing all the facts and the different points of view about an issue. Studies indicate that media exposure can influence even our dreams and it surely informs how we perceive the social and political panorama.

Can we trust the media?

That is why it would be really important for the public to be able to trust the media. But we can’t, and many among us know it. According to a Gallup survey, only 36% of the US population have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media

The ways in which the media can manipulate how we think are many, and some are very difficult to perceive. A very important and effective one is called gatekeeping: that’s when media outlets simply do not cover stories that are inconvenient for their ideological side. This way the readers/viewers simply do not know something has happened and, if they only get their information from media of the same political orientation, they never will. Similar to gatekeeping is bias by omission, which consists of leaving one side out of an article, or a series of articles over a period of time, or ignoring facts that tend to disprove the point of view shared by the journalist/media outlet. Another very common and strategic form of bias is overreporting: reporting an event or instance of something with disproportionately greater frequency or emphasis. This can bring the reader to focus only on some issues, neglecting others, and can be used as a scare tactic. Finally, among the most important types of bias, there is bias by the commission which occurs when a news outlet or reporter passes along assumptions that tend to support one point of view or political party. It’s one of the reasons very similar scandals or actions get a completely different coverage, only based on the political orientation of the people involved.

Gatekeeping and overreporting are key to understanding media bias, as they can influence how we perceive reality even more than an openly expressed biased opinion. Our mind is wired to give more importance to topics we hear more about. Psychologists talk about the “availability heuristic”: a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when we evaluate a specific topic, concept, method, or decision. This theory has been applied to media and the effects it has on the public. A typical example is plane crashes: they always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. The fact that we can more easily remember plane crashes than car crashes in the news is one of the reasons many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. 


Do we all experience the same reality?

For our brain what we hear about every day is important, what we don’t isn’t. It’s as simple as that, and it changes how we perceive reality based on our information sources. For example, I believe that the fact that mainstream media tends to focus more on some minority groups (the way I see it, to use them for their own agenda) is one of the main reasons why Americans tend to vastly overestimate their size, as shown in a YouGov study. They found, for example, that people overestimate the proportion of sexual minorities. People who are transgender are 0.6% of the population, but Americans believe they represent 21% of the population. That means people think that there are 35 times more people who are transgender than there actually are. A similar misperception occurs for the proportion of gays and lesbians (estimate: 30%, true: 3%) and bisexuals (estimate: 29%, true: 4%). The proportion of racial and ethnic minorities is also overestimated. For example, people believe that Black Americans represent 41% of the population, while according to the United States Census Bureau the percentage is 13.4. I want to make something very clear: I’m not saying that the size of a given group makes the challenges it faces or the group itself less important, but that media coverage has an impact on our ability to give an accurate estimate of facts. 

This means that, if media outlets choose to overreport or not report some opinions or facts, and we have a deep trust in the media, this can alter our perception of reality itself. And here is one important point, and the main reason why I (and my project BiasVisualizer I will discuss later) focus mainly on bias in left-leaning media. Trust in the media is not the same all over the political spectrum.

Fact: Democrats trust the media more than Republicans and Independents

I have already mentioned the Gallup survey that shows only 36% of the US population have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media. That same study shows trust in media is very different by political party. Below you find a chart taken from it that indicates that while only 11% of Republicans and 31% of Independents trust the media a “great deal” or “fair amount”, a whopping 68% of Democrats do.

And the point is not that Republicans trust CNN less than Democrats do, which would be an obvious consequence of their political stance. As this chart taken from a Yougov research clearly shows, Republicans trust Fox News and Breitbart much less than Democrats trust CNN and NBC. And that means that, even conceding that left-leaning media and right-leaning media are equally biased, the impact bias in left-leaning outlets has on their readers/viewers is much greater. If you add to that the fact that most outlets and journalists are aligned left, the effects of liberal bias are much more pervasive. 

The lack of liberty in “liberal” media

And there is one other, very important aspect to take into consideration. The perception of what journalism and media are and should be is very different on the right and on the left. Conservatives believe progressives are wrong and should be voted out, proven wrong, or even mocked but still given the freedom to speak. Many progressives, though, believe that conservatives should not be allowed to express their point of view. Twitter’s reaction to Elon Musk buying the platform (or, in the beginning, the mere possibility of that happening) reflects what liberal media has been saying for a long time: that free speech is a threat to democracy. And that is a position I find worrisome. 

Of course, not all left-leaning journalists believe that free speech is to be fought, but liberal journalists risk their jobs if they break ranks. It was the case with an editorial in the NYT titled “America Has a Free Speech Problem“, that commented on a national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College. I quote from the article: “only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely. The poll found that 84 percent of adults said it is a ‘very serious’ or ‘somewhat serious’ problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism”. 

But this kind of view will not be tolerated by the activist-journalists that inform so much of today’s mainstream media and political dialogue. The reaction to the NYT article was fierce. Press Watch (which defines itself as “an independent non-profit organization devoted to encouraging political journalists to live up to the highest standards of their profession”) responded to it with a piece titled “The New York Times editorial board should retract and resign“. Their conclusion: “We need more shaming and shunning, not less”. And most liberal commentators on Twitter expressed the same opinion.

The united front of liberal media and progressive academia

If you look for “liberal bias” or “left-wing bias” online, though, you will find many studies that say it does not exist. Before you take that as definite proof, though, you should consider that 43% of social science and humanities faculty members consider themselves radicals, activists, or Marxists and 3-5% consider themselves conservative. Moreover, the studies “proving” liberal bias does not exist usually do not talk about the actual news cycle, opting for more abstract tests of fairness in the press. I believe this alignment between the majority of media outlets/journalists and academia is the main reason why so many get along with the idea of a state-run Ministry of Truth, which should be appalling to all believers in democracy, no matter their political stance. So, can we do something to fight this situation, regaining a common perception of reality and the freedom to discuss it without fear of repercussions? I believe so, and I have put my time, effort, and money where my mouth is. 

Bursting the bubble to find a common ground

I have spent the last year working on a project to objectively expose and clearly show bias in mainstream media, Bias Visualizer. We take real cases of media bias and expose the hard data behind them. The process we use is unique: we get AI-collected and human-verified data updated multiple times a day, we analyze it to find the most glaring instances of bias, and then display it in an easy-to-read visual form. The process is transparent and straightforward: we use objective, quantitative analysis and disclose our methodology.

This way, people can see what really happens, and draw their own conclusions from the data provided. For example, on November 20th, 2021 The New York Times revealed that a firm connected to Joe Biden’s son Hunter had a significant role in securing a cobalt mine for the Chinese. This is specifically relevant since the Biden administration is pushing the country to switch over to electric cars, whose production requires cobalt, and they have highlighted the risks of foreign dependence. On Bias Visualizer you can find what media outlets chose not to cover this piece of news and then you can make up your mind on why.

And here is another example: who amplified QAnon more? If you rely on left-leaning media or even global outlets like the BBC you might believe conservative outlets are obsessed with it. So we decided to see who actually amplifies QAnon more: left-leaning or right-leaning outlets. The results might surprise you.

The technology we use to gather and analyze data is unique and innovative, and every analysis we publish is the result of days of work and research, based on a strict methodology. We also welcome suggestions for which topics to cover: you can contact me directly on Bias Visualizer Twitter page for that, or in case you want to lend a helping hand.

And we did not create Bias Visualizer for conservatives only: I believe it can be a great tool for independents (and open-minded liberals) as well because it gives them data they will not find elsewhere to base their own opinion upon. And to have open discussions. I think we should all realize that getting all your information from just one side of the aisle does not give you the complete picture. Fact-checkers and mainstream media push the narrative that left-leaning outlets are the only reality-based ones, but the truth is more complex than that. I believe we have to show media bias and be aware of it so that people with different political orientations can go back to discussing different opinions about the same facts, instead of having a completely different perception of reality, which makes dialogue nearly impossible. Showing bias is key to seeing the common reality that lies below all of our different, legitimate, opinions. And really start talking again…

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