Image attribution from “The American Journalist in the Digital Age”
The Ad Fontes Media bias chart, often referred to as “the chart,” is not particularly helpful.
The chart seeks to show where the major media outlets, publications, or websites land on the spectrum of left to right, or liberal to conservative. It also ranks them on how it perceives the accuracy of the reporting. At the top is “original fact reporting” and at the bottom are those supposedly primarily containing “inaccurate/fabricated content.”
A Columbia Journalism Review article notes that the chart uses a very small sample size to make its determinations, noting that “five to 20 stories typically judged on these sites represent but a drop of mainstream news outlets’ production.”
The chart places the media outlets in four broad categories, from the top being good reporting, and at the bottom those containing misleading information.
At first glance, it may seem like a good chart. After all, many readers have expressed frustration at not knowing where to go for accurate information.
Many of the media outlets or websites are obvious. For example, the Associated Press and Reuters contain more accurate news, while Occupy Democrats doesn’t even claim to be a news source. You don’t need to be an agency or have any special degree to figure this out.
There are several websites or media outlets that are not categorized where they should be. However, anyone can nitpick that, and that is highly subjective.
Instead, I want to point out some significant issues with the chart.
Readers should avoid the chart and should instead seek to make judgements based on their own reading of various news outlets.
Here are some problems with “the chart:”
- It tells you what to think, not how to think.
You don’t need a chart to tell you how biased a news source is. You need to experience the articles and headlines on your own and draw your own conclusions. And you certainly should not rely on someone else’s opinion without knowing the built-in biases of an organization such as Ad Fontes Media.
- Biased sources often are more thorough in explaining their point of view.
Generalist publications, such as USA Today, will show both sides at times, but tend to gloss over the other side’s opinions.
You should actually read publications or watch media outlets that are biased and listen to their perspectives. Those are often the people trying the hardest to explain a specific viewpoint.
Also, just because an organization isn’t biased doesn’t mean it offers thorough reporting. For example, USA Today may be considered unbiased (although it certainly does lean to the left), but it’s more shallow reporting than Vox (which admits to being liberal) or National Review (which admits to being conservative.)
- It is based on a presupposition that media outlets tend to be more left of center.
Studies consistently show that reporters and even editors are more likely to lean to the left. As the Columbia Journalism Review article accurately notes, 28% of reporters identify as Democrats, while only 7% identify as Republicans. A total of 50% identify as independents, which might be good. We’re not really sure, because even independents usually have a bias in one direction or another. Regardless, the fact that four times as many identify as Democrats shows that we have a real bias in the news industry.
- The media outlets with a subtle bias are the most dangerous, not the ones with an obvious ones. (For example, NPR, the Economist, and AP have a subtle bias.)
InfoWars is obviously biased. Articles that claim that someone “destroyed” someone else are obviously biased. The New York Times editorial page obviously has a liberal bias, and it is proud to say so. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal editorial board is staunchly conservative.
The problem isn’t with the overtly biased news sources, such as The Huffington Post or Breitbart, which both claim to have their own biases. (As a side note, the fact that the Ad Fuentes Media chart shows the Huffington Post as much higher than Breitbart on the reliability chart is downright laughable. HuffPost.com doesn’t even try to be unbiased or factual. It has been downright activist, and to their credit they admit it.)
The media outlets that pretend to be unbiased or who can’t even tell they have a bias are the most dangerous.
You can see subtle bias in the news articles of the Associated Press.
You can find the subtlety in the way NPR reporters ask questions or promote certain stories.
You can find the subtlety in the way news articles will write the headlines or use certain verb choice.
You can find the bias in what media outlets choose to write about.
The most dangerous ones are those at the top, such as The New York Times.
The Times is benefitting from its reputation as the country’s “newspaper of record.” But a look behind the curtain shows how dangerous it is becoming.
“A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else,” former New York Times reporter Bari Weiss wrote in her resignation letter.
The New York Times has a bias and often even condescends to those who don’t agree with the prevailing orthodoxy.
This is what the Ad Fuentes chart doesn’t seem to understand in its attempt at oversimplicity: you often need different perspectives.
“Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions,” Weiss writes.
“A curious public.” What a novel idea. We need a curious public. We need a public that questions the prevailing wisdom. We need upstart websites that challenge the long-standing publications such as The New York Times. We need different ideas and different perspectives.
We need to know how to ask questions.
And we most certainly should not be viewing publications as monoliths the way Ad Fuentes Media does.
But all this takes much more discernment.
And this is discernment that the Ad Fuentes Media chart doesn’t seem to have.