Caution: media bias

The importance of reader responsibility and bias awareness

Regardless of your world views, media and news bias are highly discussed in today’s political world. Seeing obviously biased information in the media causes me to wonder if I’m getting straight facts. Large news companies have their own motivations for covering stories in a particular way and weaving speculations into facts. I am in no way condemning or applauding bias whether unconscious or intentional, but as viewers and readers—and yes, writers—we need to be aware of the information we consume and produce.

Bias is unavoidable. All news sources must make decisions on what to report and in what way to present the information. Different sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC among many others, have reputations for certain political leanings. Elements of marketing and branding also impact this bias. Scholars and professionals have studied the phenomenon of bias for decades. I discussed the topic with Dr. Susanne Rijkhoff, an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Portland State, in order to look at bias in today’s context.

Dr. Rijkhoff explained that there is bias in the media on both sides, whether we as the audience are aware of it or not. Big media tends to be driven by profit, and thus need their audience—or consumers—to stay interested. This is especially true for news and media on television. Stories that are deemed relatable or the most important to their particular audience are given emphasis over others. “Media tell us what to think about,” Rijkhoff stated. Reports are speculative stories interpreted for a target audience often to the point that facts and interpretations are difficult for viewers to disentangle. People are often brought into the news sources to interpret the stories with statements like, “This is what it means for you.” Sound familiar?

Confirmation bias plays a large role in our information consumption as the audience of these sources. We all have the tendency to look for and put to memory information that confirms our pre-existing notions or worldviews. Coming across conflicting attitudes or facts can feel uncomfortable to say the least. It causes mental friction and can lead to minimal motivation to seek alternate views. Dr. Rijkhoff noted that that the internet as a news source can allow us to selectively expose ourselves to what coincides with our already held beliefs. This plays an important role for us as members of the PSU community. Dr. Rijkhoff explained that young adults especially tend to go to the internet for news. While the internet offers a wealth of information, it also simultaneously becomes the best platform to limit ourselves to information that already supports our views.

The solution to this double-sided bias? Well, there is no perfect strategy. “There’s no set manual of what to do,” Rijkhoff admits. However, she stressed the importance of audience awareness. Knowing about these biases does not make us immune to them, but it can allow us to take our automatic and subconscious biases into account and perhaps give us the motivation to seek differing views.

“I am somewhat optimistic. We are still aware of these processes,” Rijkhoff concluded. These issues are being discussed, and this honest and open discussion needs to continue. Break out of your usual news source bubble to see what the other sides have to say. What events do your news sources omit from coverage? Have a conversation with someone you don’t agree with and actually listen to what they have to say. Judge the facts for yourself, and repeat after me: Be aware.