How Not to Think About the News

A few weeks back, I started to see this graphic make the rounds on social media.  There are no sources or accompanying article that I could find, but it looks like someone’s earnest attempt to articulate their view of political media.  Whoever made it, I think they hit the nail on the head when it comes to how many of us think about political media.  We’ve got ‘bias’ from the left or right and more ‘journalistic value’ somewhere in the middle.  It may well be something somebody just threw together but, it rings true, right?  As such, it can show us how we think about politics and media.  We might not agree with the exact placement of each of the outlets, but the overall model in our heads probably looks something like this:


I. Triangulation

Let’s take a look at what this graph communicates:

What’s biased?  Everything (unless it’s in the middle).

What makes news valuable?  Being closer to the center.

How do we decide what’s biased? Measure it’s ideological distance between two extremes.

How can we be well informed?  By consuming media balanced between the extremes.  Or, by inference, consuming media evenly from along the political spectrum and balancing it ourselves.  How many people have you heard tell you that they ‘watch both sides of the news’?  That’s this model at work.

Let’s call this an inclusive model of media consumption.  It includes as many perspectives as it can and assumes that valuable media will be that which represents a position near the middle of those perspectives.  That seems okay at first glance, but it’s missing something: a measure for accuracy.  All the graph shows is the level of bias (X) and the level of complexity (Y).

Intuitively, we might say that accuracy is just a function of the two axes; to be ‘true’, media has to be near the top of the graph and close to the middle.  And that, exactly, is our mistake: conflating centrality with truth.  It might feel right, but we have no reason to assume one leads to the other.  All we really gain by this method is an average, one that includes the bad data along with the good.  While the creator doesn’t attempt to describe the media outlets they included in terms of accuracy or truth they do make some claims about ‘value’.  Closer to the middle = more journalistic value.  But how can media be valuable if it does not inform us well?

I’m not suggesting we don’t consider multiple perspectives. New and different perspectives can help provide more of the story or put the story in context.  But new perspectives can also fail to provide any real information, and can fail to provide any relevant context.  If we include those perspectives in our understanding of the world our understanding won’t reflect the world as it really is.

Building a worldview out of a variety of media, no matter how politically diverse, won’t work unless we’re checking that the media we’re consuming is ‘true’ to some extent.  Giving equal weight to perspectives that misleading or distorted just introduces that distortion into our own outlook.  Instead, we should practice a little exclusion.  A variety of sources is great, but there’s no reason for them all to weigh equally.  And there’s no reason to consume or adjust for media we find to be inaccurate or misleading.  Once we find that a piece of media can’t inform us, we can dismiss it.  No need for a balancing act.

II. Bias

Let’s do a quick thought experiment.  Imagine an otherwise unknown author has written a story accusing some Republican Senator of criminal activity and demanded their resignation.  How would you categorize that story on the graph above?  You might conclude that, since they’ve been critical of a right-leaning politician, they possess a left-leaning bias and place it somewhere to the left of the center.  Well, what if an investigation were to later uncover that our author was absolutely right about the accusation?  Does the story still belong on the left?  If the accusation has merit, is the author correct in addition to being biased, or are they now free of bias?  Would it matter if the author wasn’t unknown and typically wrote criticism of the right?  What if they were typically critical of the left?

What I’m trying to highlight here is our use of the word bias.  What do we mean when we say it?  Likely, you’d moved the story around on the graph in your mind quite a bit in response to those questions we use ‘bias’ to refer to any political conclusion to either side of the middle.  Publication that advocates for leftish solutions?  Biased.  News channel that celebrates and explains the benefits of rightish policies?  Biased.  But this leaves us with the tricky problem of media similar to the hypothetical above.  How do we categorize media that’s ‘true’ but leans to the right or left, possibly to the benefit of the right or left (or your political designation of choice).

If we use the word bias for any conclusion that happens to fall outside the political center, or that has the trappings of rightishness or leftishness, we’re going to have difficulty differentiating between media that’s truly the result of prejudice and media that’s simply politically conclusive.  So let’s agree upon a couple definitions:

Biased media refers to media that is misleading, inaccurate, or distorted when compared to reality as a result of the prejudices of the author.  An altered outcome based on a skewed process.  Really, this is the original meaning of the word, were you to look it up in a dictionary.

Politically Conclusive media is media that attempts to inform or suggest a political course of action, regardless of where it falls on the political spectrum.

This distinction might not seem important, but it is.  Our brain uses language, not only to speak to others, but to define and describe the world to itself.  If we’re not careful, we run the risk of labeling anything political as biased, even media that would inform us well.

Dismissing media you find uninformative and limits on what you label ‘biased’ might be a little nerve-wracking.  Abandoning that inclusive, bird’s-eye-view model of media means that you have to come down to the ground to navigate details that are often messy and hard to understand.  You may find that you identify certain sources of media as more accurate than others.  You may find that media from one side of the political spectrum or the other more informative.  You will, almost definitely, have to go through the process of being very wrong or misinformed about one thing or another.  Upsetting at first, but in the grand scheme of things, finding out you’re misinformed is just an opportunity to reassess what media you’ve been giving your attention.