Critical thinking, bias, and media manipulation

Rhiannon Davies | October 21, 2020

Critical thinking is a skill that we need now more than ever. Watching 2020 go by in the news media has been… uncomfortable, to say the least. It’s hard to see what is actual news and what is media spin amidst the weirdness.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think things like the murder hornets, plagues of locusts, sharks living inside an active volcano, or the chance to see into a parallel universe, were made up just to bamboozle us.

Not all of the weird is true, however. Some of it’s created to appeal to our biases and reinforce negative stereotypes. In the age of deep fakes and ‘alternative facts’, we need to think critically about what we’re seeing in the media.

What’s a bias?

A bias is a set of ideas that someone forms around something. It’s usually strongly for or strongly against the object in question. Biases can be unconsciously formed or consciously built, and are the building blocks for a person’s worldview. Biases dictate how you behave towards other people, what you buy, even what books you read.

Let’s say someone’s favourite animal is a cat, and they have to choose between spending an afternoon with either a cat or a dog. Their positive bias towards cats will influence their decision, because they think cats have positive factors that dogs lack.

Alternatively, if someone really hates cats, and they have to spend an afternoon with either a cat or a dog, they’ll choose the dog. Their negative bias towards cats influences their decision as they think cats have negative factors that dogs lack.

Image, small tabby cat sitting on a sleeping brown dog on a footpath

Are you a ‘cats rule, dogs drool’ person, or ‘goodest boi and heckin’ fur devil’ person? Image by Glomad Marketing / Unsplash licence

Media bias

The news media have used bias to influence people’s opinions since the printing press was invented. Organisations will have a message with a certain audience in mind and will tailor that message to appeal to those biases.

Let’s take two examples from the Business Insider. The first article is about why dogs are better than cats. The second article is about why cats are better than dogs. Both articles come from the same website, so they should be even-handed in their treatment.

If we take a closer look, the Business Insider has a pretty strong pro-dog bias.

Even though the Business Insider has given attention to the benefits of cats, you could say that it is a pro-dog website.

Read the dog article

Read the cat article

Read more about media bias on Wikipedia

How do I spot bias in the media?

Before the internet, you could look up information in non-fiction books or encyclopaedias. These books were rigorously fact-checked before publication. Readers and researchers could trust that what they were reading was factual.

The internet, on the other hand, is an open repository where anyone can build a website saying anything at all. Sites like Wikipedia have volunteers to fact-check submissions, but not all sites are as stringent. This adds another level to online research, where you need to check the source of your information rather than simply accepting it.

You can identify bias in the media by asking these questions.

What kind of information is it?

Is it an article or an opinion piece? Is it a sneaky advertorial pretending to be genuine news? Does the piece make you feel something instantly, or does it make you think about a topic in a more detached manner?

Who and what are the sources? Why should you believe them?

Is the source of the information a credible one? The media repeats a lot of celebrity opinion pieces with the same weight as fact. This is dangerous because celebrities don’t have the same knowledge base as experts. Playing a scientist in a movie does not mean that the actor is suddenly an authority on the dangers of COVID-19. In fact, the World Health Organization and the UN have had to assemble a specialised communications team to combat the spread of the misinformation ‘infodemic’.

What’s the evidence, and how was it vetted?

What can you see to prove the claims being made? Is there something to back them up, or are you being asked to blindly accept what’s in front of you? Is the evidence strong enough to convince you, or is it a fallacy?

Learn about fallacies on Wikipedia

Does the evidence prove the main point of the piece?

Did the sources provided justify the main conclusion of the story? Does it actually speak to the point?

What’s missing?

Does the piece give you the whole story? Is everything explained clearly, or are some things still a little murky? Does the piece quickly pass over something that could be important in favour of other things that are less so?

Image, grey cat in a yellow backpack-style cat carrier

If this photo was under a headline saying ‘Cat astronaut Major Tom Cat Esquire lands on moon’ would you believe it? Image by Hanmer Zh / Unsplash licence

How can I avoid bias in my writing?

Unfortunately, you can’t avoid it all together. But you can reduce the effect of your bias on your reader by avoiding the historical biases that exist in our written and visual language, and by noticing and addressing your own biases about your readers.

Historically, writing in English has been written by and for well-educated white men with English as their first language. This bias shows in occupational words like ‘policeman’ and ‘postman’ — or even using ‘mankind’ as a collective noun when discussing humans. Image stock footage was originally based on white men in offices, women with children, and people of other ethnicities doing manual labour.

It’s important that we think critically about our writing and the images we use to make sure they accurately represent the people we want to reach. After all, who wants to read something written by someone who doesn’t understand what’s important to them?

One way to reach your readers is to imagine the person that you’re writing it for. What do they look like? How old are they? Are they male, female, or nonbinary? Is English their first language or their fifth? Do they have a learning disability or something that affects the way they absorb information? Where are they on the socioeconomic scale?

And, perhaps more importantly, how much of what you feel about this imaginary person is coming through in your writing?

How do I identify my biases?

Our biases are expressed in the snap judgements we make about a person or a situation. They’re part of the evolutionary hardwiring we developed to judge whether or not a situation or thing is dangerous. Over thousands of years our biases have become more complex than Sabretooth Tiger = Yikes not Awww. The quickfire instinct of danger/safe is still there, but we now apply it to people, social situations, and even places.

You can tell your biases by exploring how you feel about a person or situation. For example, if you consider yourself a dyed-in-the-wool cat person, why do you feel that they’re superior to every other animal? If it’s their fluffiness, what makes their fluffiness better than the fluffiness of a dog or a rabbit? If it’s their purring, why is their purring more appealing to you than a woof or a squeak or a chirp?

Really thinking about how and why you feel either positively or negatively about a person or situation will help you to identify where your biases lie. Once you know where they are, you can work on reducing the impact they have on your life.

Take the Harvard University Project Implicit Bias test

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