Both new and experienced voters often find it difficult to find unbiased information on candidates due to smear campaigns and misinformation.
It is important for readers to be able to distinguish the bias in a news story so that they can create their own opinion based on the information. Journalism Professor Barbara Meagher Smith believes that it is the responsibility of the reader to learn how to distinguish facts from fiction.
“I think in this election the media coverage has been fair,” Meagher said. “Still bias can be anywhere. We have to be in charge of finding and defeating that ourselves. It puts a lot of onus on the reader.”
A study done by Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver, both of Indiana University, said that approximately half of journalists identified themselves as Independent in 2013, while about 28 percent were Democrat.
With only about 8 percent identifying as Republican, bias appears quite often in the news. A good journalist will do their best to eliminate this bias from their writing, but a reader must be able to identify it when they are unsuccessful.
In order to do that, however, a voter must be able to pinpoint bias in news sources. The practice of editorializing (expressing opinion rather than simply reporting news) becomes common during issues regarding elections.
For an example of editorializing look at these two sentences:
1. Senator Fakename said to the crowd that he would work to stop corruption in Washington.
2. Senator Fakename roared to the crowd that he would strive to end the plague of corruption in Washington.
In these examples we see an insertion of opinion into strict facts. It may seem like a small difference, but in using these adjectives each sentence takes on a different flavor. When a reporter chooses not to use a direct quote, a reader can assume that the author of a story is interpreting the information said, not just reporting it. Though this is not always an example of bias, it can be used in some cases to lead a reader to interpret information in a specific way. In using these techniques, a news story can both inform and manipulate a reader.
Fair.org, a website dedicated to detecting bias and misinformation in the media, demonstrates how buzzwords and “loaded language” can affect how information is presented.
“Media often use the right-wing buzzword ‘racial preference’ to refer to affirmative action programs,” Fair.org said. “Polls show that this decision makes a huge difference in how the issue is perceived: A 1992 Louis Harris poll, for example, found that 70 percent said they favored ‘affirmative action’ while only 46 percent favored ‘racial preference programs.’”
When it comes to elections though, voters must remember that not all of the information that is broadcast actually comes from journalists.
Anytime an advertisement airs on television stating that it was paid for by an election campaign, it is safe to assume that the information contained therein is biased. This does not always mean that the information is incorrect, but it implies that a voter should take time to investigate their claims before forming an opinion.
If you are unable to detect any bias in the language used in a story then you can begin to take it seriously. It is important, however, to verify information provided in a story against other sources. If you read a fact in an article that seems surprising or interesting it is best to then cross reference those facts with another source.
Just because a piece of information is true, doesn’t mean that there is no bias. Misrepresentation of facts is another way in which opinions about an issue can be manipulated by the media.
For example, a common statistic cited by political candidates claims that women make 77 cents for every dollar men earn. This statistic, according to the Washington Post, does not take into account many factors that influence the wage gap.
“We do not want to suggest there is no pay gap,” said Glenn Kessler, a reporter for the Post. A report by the American Association of University Women found that, after accounting for a variety of factors, including college major and occupation, there was an unexplained seven percent gap one year after graduation. The gap then grew to 12 percent after ten years. But that’s still nearly half the gap touted by the president.
By choosing to not explain where a statistic comes from, or what information it leaves out, a factual piece of information can be used as a tool to mislead. This makes it even more necessary for voters to take the time to verify information before using it to make a decision.