There has been quite a lot of talk about bias in the media recently, especially in regard to particular newspapers. So, it seems appropriate to post a brief explanation of how media analysis techniques can objectively identify and report on certain types of bias, whenever and wherever they are encountered.
But before examining how analytical methods detect bias, it’s important to decide what we mean by the term ‘bias’ in this context.
One definition is:
To show prejudice for or against (someone or something) unfairly: "the tests were biased against women"; "a biased view of the world".
To show prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Note that inherent in both definitions of bias listed here is the presence of the somewhat allied notions of the absence of fairness and of prejudice.
In other words, bias can be said to be present when an opinion or position is taken up without a fair examination and presentation of both sides of an argument, or where a judgment is made and a position expressed prior to the examination of the facts.
Based on these definitions, it is not enough for us to claim that a media organization is biased simply because it disagrees with our position. Rather, there needs to be evidence of unfairness or prejudice in what it publishes or broadcasts – and this includes the practice of presenting just one side of a story as though it were a fair and reasonable representation of both sides.
Fortunately identifying the elements of bias is not a particularly difficult task so long as one has: (a) the right data handling tools and (b) a set of proven analysis procedures to follow, and (c) quality control regimes capable of checking analysts’ objectivity. Armed with these, bias can be detected though a fairly simple assessment of the nature and position of the messages that comprise a set of news articles, and through which all positions are put and arguments made.
There is one more thing to keep in mind however. When it comes to an examination of media content, bias is a relative concept - and spotting and quantifying it is an exercise in comparative assessment rather than absolute determination. So in order to make an assessment in respect of the presence or absence of bias in the media, an analyst needs to have access to a representative volume of material from multiple publishers and over a reasonable time frame.
Only then can any assessment be considered to be accurate and defensible.
Some of the message characteristics media analysts look for are:
Once any of these message characteristics are identified, validated and tabulated, it is a relatively straightforward affair to determine the extent, precise nature, and perpetrator of the bias.