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Understanding bias


You click on MSNBC.com and notice a hot new development in the Mideast. How should you go about analyzing the news report? There are certain questions you can keep in mind that may reveal underlying bias. For example:

  • Are acts of violence directed against civilians termed “terror”? If not, does this conform to the media’s policy regarding other areas of conflict around the world?
  • In reporting violence, is the sequence of events clear, as to which side was attacked and which side retaliated?
  • Is sympathy being elicited for one side of the conflict, through the portrayal of its victims in humanizing terms (e.g. including personal information like the victim’s name, age, familial relationship, or profession)?
  • Though both sides blame each other for perpetrating the violence, is one side portrayed as the more violent aggressor?
  • Are the perpetrators of violence described in passive or active terms?
  • Does the media attempt to justify an act of violence — e.g. for reasons of poverty, frustration, or national liberation?
  • Are suicide bombers and collaborators included in Palestinian casualty counts? Are casualty counts expressed unqualified, or is a distinction made between combatants and civilians?
  • Is “equal time” granted to both sides of the conflict, or is one side given preferential treatment — hence lending more weight and credibility to that side’s position?
  • When one side makes a claim, is the other side given a chance to refute, or does the claim stand unchallenged? Does one side usually “get the last word”?
  • Does the media quote dissenting or extremist opinions within each camp, or does the media only quote moderate voices that parrot the leadership’s line?
  • Does the headline skew the story by failing to identify which side was the aggressor and which side the victim?
  • Photos and captions: Are these pertinent to the story, or do they diverge from the main story and garner out-of-context sympathy for one side or the other?
  • And finally, look specifically for the “7 Violations of Media Objectivity”:
    1. Did the story contain misleading definitions and terminology?
    2. Was the reporting one-sided and imbalanced?
    3. Did the reporter editorialize in what was supposed to be an objective news story?
    4. Did the reporter fail to provide proper background and context?
    5. Was key information missing (selective omission)?
    6. Did the reporter use true facts to draw false conclusions?
    7. Did the reporter distort the facts?


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