A Journalist Dissects a Biased Chart of Media Biases

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Only 29% of people in the US trust the news. Some 37% of Mexicans do, and 43% of Australians. That figure drops even further when it comes to social media. Some 18% of Australians trust news there, and 13% of people in the US do. People are being inundated with content, marketing, and headlines, and it is understandable that they struggle to differentiate between what is reliable and what isn’t.

Ad Fontes Media, Inc, claims they want to help people with this. They say they want to help people “navigate the news landscape” and “make news consumers smarter and news media better”. Unfortunately, their own bias steps in, and they fail at this task.

It all starts with clarity about the purpose of journalism. If you think the role of the media is to provide de-contextualized, Eurocentric reporting from parachute journos who cover countries they are unfamiliar with and give more quote space in an article to a violent coup plotter than to the millions who mobilized against him, then perhaps Ad Fontes is for you (since they rate the BBC so highly).

But a lot of journalists, particularly in countries like Mexico (where I am) or Syria, will put their lives on the line, while others will risk their income to provide content that has much more integrity, quality, and reliability than the above. Journalists will pursue narcos or follow the paperwork linking  politicians and transnationals in anti-environment deals. We talk to strangers, we have 20 pages of notes for a 2-page story. We aim to expose the intricacies of events that the powerful don’t want readers to know about or understand. Our journalism should help people have a deeper understanding of the economic and social world they live in and give them the necessary information to stand up to local and global injustices.

And around about now, Ad Fontes will ring the alarm bells and tell you I am biased. “She’s left wing!” they will yell. And indeed it is seen as a crime and a career killer in journalism to care about the consequences of your work. But it shouldn’t be.

Unlike Ad Fontes, and unlike the BBC, AP, Reuters, and so on – I admit that I have a political perspective. They do too – they just pretend they don’t. I am a journalist because I want to counter the sexism and racism that feeds on educational-misinformation and dehumanisation. I want people in the US to understand the dynamics that lead to their country bombing eight countries in their name, or the consequences of closing the southern border to migrants. I want people to know that those migrants are not just two charitable and generic quotes at the end of an article – they are hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the lasting consequences of a coup the US supported in Honduras, or they are migrating because they are barely able to survive thanks to the greed of transnationals who have looted and wrecked their region in exchange for extreme poverty wages.

The concept of neutral, unbiased media is premised on the notion that there are people capable of being gods in the sky, watching the world do its thing, unaffected by anything. They are people who are so disconnected from the world, they have no stake in it at all. This concept means that there can some how be a giant media corporation with no invested interest in the economy. It suggests that US-based journalists can some how have no opinion at all on when the US should leave Afghanistan. It implies that the Washington Post can talk about the struggle of workers in a neutral fashion, despite being owned by Jeff Bezos. According to Ad Fontes, despite this conflict of interest, WP is very reliable.

And yet, the starting point for determining which media to trust should be exactly this: Which media is open about its agenda, which lies about having one?

Next though, are the ethical issues with putting on a show of neutrality in the context of a vastly unequal world that is riddled with systematised violence. The media that promotes itself as unbiased, when covering a story about Trump sexually harassing a woman, will give equal article space to Trump and the woman. Supposedly, that is what balance or lack of bias is: covering both sides. And indeed, a nuanced, useful article will help us understand wtf Trump thinks he is doing. But “lack of bias” means giving voice to man who is already part of a class of barely-humans who own most of the media, and hog political and economic power. How is it unbiased to give more voice to someone who already has a massive platform? Standing back and being neutral in situations of violence, abuse, and injustice is to take the side of the oppressor. You can not say, “Oh, that cop beating the Indigenous kid, yeah, I want to hear from both of them equally before I decide.” That person supports the cop and is pretending to be even handed about it.

For Ad Fontes, left-wing media like Democracy Now is exactly the same as right wing media, like Fox News which spews hatred of oppressed peoples. It’s all about distance from the non-existent “centre.” By their logic, BLM is the same as the KKK – which demonstrates extreme stupidity regarding politics and who has power and who does not.

Nor does Ad Fontes understand that in the real world, centrists are usually right-wing elitists pretending to be softer in order to win votes or support. Instead, they perpetuate the myth that those in the centre don’t have an agenda. I guess, self-proclaimed centrists or moderates like Hillary Clinton don’t believe in anything at all. She was just doing her job, when she supported the coup against a left-wing president in Honduras.

There is geopolitics and economic influence going on everywhere, but Ad Fontest would have you believe that it somehow doesn’t exist and the most trust-worthy media is that media which lies about having any agenda.

There is a lot of sexism behind the myth that taking a stance meanings being hysterical and ill-informed. According to the Ad Fontes graphic, the more you move from the centre, the less factual you are. But in reality, centrists have a vested interest in the status quo, while being left simply means you want the world to improve. According to Ad Fontes, those who think the world needs to change a lot are “extreme”. But they have it upside-down. The role of the media should not be to support an unjust status quo, but instead to promote critical thought, reflection, and deep awareness.

Criteria for good journalism which Ad Fontes doesn’t consider

So, while Ad Fontes is worried about political preference in the media, they overlook all the things that really do matter to quality, trustworthy journalism:

Accuracy: This is obviously important, yet Ad Fontes ranks a lot of media corporations highly despite their repeated inaccuracies (labelling Guaido as president of Venezuela, though he hadn’t been elected one, repeatedly claiming that protestors attacked police when it was actually the other way around, inaccurate use of Covid-19 figures…)

Purpose: Does the media exist to generate profits for a few individuals? If not, what are its sources of funding? Is it independent, or beholden to a few rich donators or to other organisations with an agenda, like USAID? Does it produce a lot of sensationalised content in order to generate clicks and make more money or sell more native advertising space? How trustworthy can anything be when its primary motivation is money, not quality information?

Prejudice: The mainstream media companies Ad Fontes rates highly are known for the extremely high proportion of white, male journalists and editors (international news is about 85% male last I checked), and for using mostly white, male experts for quotes in their content. Not only does this make for an unhealthy workplace, but excluding oppressed peoples impacts the type of content that is prioritised and how it is produced and framed. Good journalism has a clear responsibility to foster a reasonable perception of the world, a clear understanding of sexism, corporate irresponsibility, and so on. Yet, Ad Fontes ranks Fox Business much higher than The Gray Zone or Alternet. They even rank Fox News on par with Salon. Their system doesn’t work, and it is broken because they don’t understand the purpose of journalism.

Reliability: Does the media org have journalists on the ground who know the country well, or does it have one person covering all of Latin America from Houston? Publishing journalists who are experts in their beats is a much more useful indication of trustworthiness than opinion v fact proportions (the vertical axis in the Ad Fontes graphic). Depth of research, quality of facts, using first hand sources, photographic support, originality, interviews, and context (or how many quotes are taken out of context) are all very important, yet overlooked by Ad Fontes.

Complexity: The media should strive to present the nuances of an issue in order to help readers understand it, rather than impede understanding or simplifying or reducing an issue. This isn’t about the amount of information, but what sort of information is included and how it is organised.

Overall news composition: The final criteria that Ad Fontes ignores is the sorts of stories the media is prioritising.  A media company that purports to provide global news, but produces 10 articles on Europe and one article about a European tourist in Senegal, is not informing the public in a responsible way. The media makes a statement about what and who matters when it prioritises one story over another.

Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.