I was recently asked by a fellow Twitter user to comment on the following image:
Here’s the specific question from the tweet: “Butler tell me there is no coordinated bias here. What say you?”
I always appreciate an opportunity to talk about journalism and the news media, and I hope you’ll bear with me as I walk you all through this. I’m going to examine this graphic in a manner that all media-literate people should, and I’m going to include some thoughts and questions to help you whenever you do the same thing. I hope this template provides some guidance on how you can evaluate what you encounter on social media.
1) Try to figure out what the image or post is suggesting.
This one’s pretty easy. Clearly, this image is suggesting that many of America’s news media outlets are liberal, distrust Donald Trump, and are colluding with each other to spin the news in a negative way. It’s making its point by noting how many news outlets used the word “dark” to describe a particular speech by Mr. Trump.
2) Who created this image? What was his or her motive?
I don’t know who created it, but I’m going to presume that it was created by someone who firmly believes that mainstream media outlets are hopelessly biased against Mr. Trump. Therefore, I’m going to presume again that the content seen in this image was chosen specifically to support the creator’s viewpoints.
3) How many news outlets are represented here?
There are 10, and that’s a problem. Focusing on 10 news outlets when there are hundreds of news organizations in the United States doesn’t provide a large enough sample size to suggest any statistically significant findings. One can’t judge an entire industry based on 10 headlines. But let’s give the image’s creator the benefit of the doubt and presume that there was only room enough for 10 examples in this image.
4) Were all of these headlines written about the same event around the same time?
You need to make sure that this isn’t a collection of headlines that were written, say, during a six-month time span and cover multiple topics. The longer the timeframe, the higher the chances that you’ll find headlines with the word “dark” in them. However, it appears that these headlines refer to Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention. A quick web search shows that he gave that speech on July 21, 2016.
5) Do these headlines really exist?
Now you have to dig in and conduct a web search to determine if these headlines are real. I did, and here’s what I found for each one of them:
Washington Post: Yes, published July 22
CBS News: Yes, published July 22
NBC News: Yes, published July 22
CNBC: Yes, published July 22
Rolling Stone: Yes, published July 22
The Huffington Post: Yes, published July 23
Mother Jones: Yes, published July 21
The New Yorker: Yes, published July 22
The Nation: I was unable to find this headline, even when directly searching for it on The Nation’s website. However, I did discover this headline in the comments section of this story, which strongly suggests that the contents of this image have been around at least since July 2016.
The Boston Globe: Yes, published July 22
6) What kind of content is this?
Now that you’ve determined the headlines are real, you have to look at the content below the headlines. Are these news stories? Are they commentaries? Are they editorials? It’s helpful to know what are traditionally considered to be the three primary functions of news media: to inform the audience, to persuade the audience, and to entertain the audience.
News stories are meant to inform the audience and should be free of the writer’s political or ideological biases. Many, many news outlets adhere to this standard. However, not all news organizations do (and that’s protected by the First Amendment, too). News is expected to be written in a way that provides the audience with enough information to make informed decisions about their personal, professional, and civic lives.
Editorials and commentaries are based on opinion and are meant to persuade the audience. Editorials and commentaries are expected to promote various viewpoints. News organizations hire pundits and writers to share their opinions. We see it every day across the news media landscape. It’s a normal function of the press.
Let’s get back to our headlines. Are these news stories or commentaries? Based on my perusal of these pieces, here’s my assessment of how each organization presented them:
Washington Post: Above the headline, the word “Opinions” is clearly listed. This is not a news report. It is presented as commentary.
CBS News: This is presented as a news report.
NBC News: This is presented as a news report.
CNBC: This is presented as commentary.
Rolling Stone: This is presented as a news report.
The Huffington Post: This is presented as commentary.
Mother Jones: This is presented as a news report.
The New Yorker: This is presented as a news report.
The Nation: I was unable to find this story.
The Boston Globe: This is presented as commentary.
That’s five news stories and four commentaries. Remember, commentaries are supposed to be the writer’s opinion, and it isn’t necessarily the opinion of the news organization that hired him or her.
7) Are these news organizations biased against Mr. Trump?
It’s pretty easy to find headlines that support how one feels about a particular topic. In this case, the creator of this image clearly chose headlines from these news organizations to suggest that these media outlets are inherently biased against Mr. Trump. Just to see if I could find any, I went looking for neutral or positive headlines about Mr. Trump from these same organizations. I decided I would take whatever I could find, news or commentary, from a simple Google search covering November 2016.
Washington Post: Donald Trump gave a very, very good speech today in Pennsylvania
The Huffington Post: A Prayer For Donald Trump And America, From An Old Friend
Mother Jones: For November 2016, I didn’t find what I would consider to be a neutral or positive headline.
The New Yorker: DONALD TRUMP’S CLOSING MESSAGE
The Nation: Donald Trump: The View From the Rustbelt
The Boston Globe: Donald Trump’s victory shows a fierce thirst for change in US
8) As someone who spent years working as a journalist, I can promise everyone that there is no coordinated effort among the so-called “mainstream media” to come up with similar-sounding headlines or stories. It just doesn’t work that way. Media organizations are way too diverse and way too busy competing with each other to be capable of doing anything like that.
But just to be sure, I checked the ownership (or majority ownership) of each news organization to see how many are housed within the same corporate conglomerate. I conducted a few simple searches through Wikipedia.
The Washington Post: Jeff Bezos
CBS News: National Amusements
NBC News: Comcast
Rolling Stone: Wenner Media, LLC
The Huffington Post: Verizon Communications
Mother Jones: Foundation for National Progress
The New Yorker: Advance Publications
The Nation: The Nation Company
The Boston Globe: John W. Henry
9) How easy would it be to make a chart showing that the news media are biased in favor of Mr. Trump?
This is pretty easy, which just goes to show that you can create an image that shows whatever you want it to show. I conducted a Google search for the same time period in which the above articles were written, and I also searched for the same topic: Mr. Trump’s RNC acceptance speech. Here are 10 examples anyone could use to claim bias in favor of Mr. Trump, and these are a mix of news reports and commentary:
FOX News: After Trump’s RNC speech, Hillary and her party should be running scared. Published July 22.
FOX News: Laura Ingraham: I haven’t seen the left this upset with a GOP speech since Ronald Reagan. Published July 22.
Breitbart: Donald Trump: Welcome Back, Ronald Reagan. Published July 22.
The Wall Street Journal: Donald Trump Accepts GOP Nomination, Promises to Fix America. Published July 22.
The Washington Times: Donald Trump completes takeover of GOP, declares ‘I am your voice’. Published July 21.
Chicago Sun-Times: Trump accepts GOP nomination: ‘I am your voice’. Published July 21.
The Seattle Times: Why Trump would be a good president. Published July 21, updated July 23.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Donald Trump accepts GOP nomination: ‘I will fight for you and I will win for you’. Published July 22.
The Kansas City Star: Kansas delegates thought Trump hit a home run with speech. Published July 22.
Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee’s GOP delegates say Donald Trump’s speech was worth the wait. Published July 22.
The above examples don’t exhibit a repeated word like “dark,” which was used by some news organizations to describe Mr. Trump’s speech. However, that’s less of an issue of collusion and more of an issue of headline writers’ laziness to reach for a thesaurus.
10) Anyone who is looking for bias in news organizations will find it – somewhere. It certainly does exist. Sometimes it’s the framing of a single story; sometimes the entire organization has adopted a particular ideological stance. That happens in both the liberal realm and the conservative realm. Former Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer made some great points about media bias, actual and perceived, in a recent interview with The Washington Post. As a news consumer, the best way to manage this is to get news from multiple organizations. With a greater diversity of news sources, the more fully informed you’ll be.