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Uncover Media Bias: A Critical Skill for Researchers

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Types of Bias

Bias presents itself in all media, including the news.  News is, afterall, generated and consumed by individuals operating with in the larger systems of "mass media" and "the public." Understanding what types of bias exisit is key to detecting both deliberate and systematic biases.  Below, you will find common biases for which all consumers of news should be watching:


Editorial biases most commonly occur during the processes of selection and placement.  Focused coverage on particular stories, while ignoring other stories, can manipulate the reader/viewer towards supporting a specific polticial or social agenda. Detecting these biases depends on reader/viewer curiosity and ability to look for information beyond what is first presented to them.

 layout (placement)

"Burying" the story by placing it in a less often read portion of a paper, or scheduling it to air at atypical times keeps the story from surfacing as importanat in the reader/viewer's mind.

 commercial (selection)

Advertisers fund the news.  In return, they expect larger audiences to view their sponsoring commericals. Editors will select stories that draw larger audiences of readers and viewers in order to meet sponsor demands.

 temporal (placement)

News is expected to be current and fresh.  Editors will often give follow-up (and clarifying!) stories less prominent placement.

 visual (selection)

News relies on visuals to draw audience attention.  The selection of images can skew audience perception of both a story's importance and of the events reported.

 sensationalism (selection)

The news media often focuses on the stories that promote fear, anger, and excitement.  Shock sells!


Reporting biases occur during the processes of research and delivery.  Because they are people, reporters are also subject to biases of commision, wherein they use a particular tone to "spin" a story so that readers/viewers will perceive it in a particular way. Detecting these biases depends on readers/viewers adopting an attitude of skepticism, ready to compare news outlet coverage and fact check when in doubt.

 narrative style (delivery)

Journalism is uses a story telling structure.  From an early age we are taught to expect stories to progress from beginning to end, featuring both protagonists and antagonists.  This expectation can place pressure on writers to offer conclusions that are not fairly drawn.

 fairness bias (delivery)

In response to the ethical demand that they offer fair and balanced reporting, writers often set up contention where it does not exist.  

 expediency (research)

Deadlines drive the journalist. Writers often rely on tried and true sources for information, taking too little time to explore alternative perspectives.    

 witness (research)

Witnesses are a natural source of information for the reporter. If a reporter does not actively search for a variety of perspectives among witnesses, the story can become skewed.

 proximity/point-of-view (delivery)

Reporters, particularly on television, are often framed within a story (interviewing or reporting to the camera. Being close to the story can tempt a writer to assume a point of view that is less than objective.

 omission (research)

When reporters omit facts that would encourage critical consideration of an event, they encourage readers to skew their perspective in a particular way.

 word choice/labels (spin)

Selecting words with highly suggestive negative or positive connotations can manipulate the audience's emotional reaction to a story.

 endorsement (spin)

Reporters should refrain from offering analysis or solutions.  They don't always do this, thereby implying an endorsement.


Situational biases surface when audiences encounter a news story and are related to both conceptual and contextual variance.  Detecting these biases depends on readers/viewers being self-aware.

 complexity (conceptual)

The news attempts to frame stories using the standard six-question rubric of "who, what, when, where, why and how."  The complexity of real life (particularly when it comes to ideological issues) rarely conform to this neat standard. Readers may fail to consider nuiances when stories are presented starkly.

 geography (contextual)

Geographic location can have a huge impact on how certain stories are received and perceived by audiences. The local of a story determines cultural and social issues such as diversity.  Audiences located outside of that local may have different reactions to the same story.

 definitions (contextual)

Shared language is not necessarily shared meaning. Words take on different meanings depending on context of use and the background/culture of the reader/viewer.

 distraction (contextual)

Audiences are subject to distraction.  Television and radio news is often delivered in such a rapid fire manner that there is little time to stop and consider stories thoughtfully.  Print media provides greater opportunity for contemplation, though as this more traditional formats move online, the sheer quantity of information available becomes a distraction.

 stereotypes (conceptual)

By nature, people develop their understandings based on classifying and categorizing knowledge. Stereotypes develop as a way of understanding groups and situations of which we are not a regular part.  These stereotypes can affect the way in which we perceive a story (and can be used by journalists to that effect).  


The Critical Audience

"It's true if I/we believe it's true"

"It's true if it supports my arguement."

"I/we want to believe it, but it may be wrong."

"My own biases make me believe some things are true that are not."

"It may not support my arguement, but it makes me think and is worth considering."

Quick Tips

first person point-of-view that personalizes comments with words like "I" or We"

superlatives, such as "always," "never," "must"

belief statements that include "I believe" or "I think"

inflammatory language designed to anger or excite.

judgement statements that attack rather than report

  • accusations that use words like "they" or "you"
  • overuse of qualifying adjectives and adverbs

solution suggestions using words like "could," should," "must"

Online Learning Activities

News Bias Explored
This project, prepared by students at the University of Michigan, explores ways in which bias is demonstrated through word choice, omission, limiting debate, story framing, and source selection.  Three interactive activities are included:

Word Choice Buffet
Students build headlines to explore how word choice effects message.
Headlines Heads Up
Predict the story based on the headline.
Image Bias
A set of three activities highlight the effects of image choice on news reporting.

Learn more about media bias....

Accuracy in Media
A citizen's media watchdog that aims to expose politically motivated media bias, teach critical consumption of news, and hold mainstream press "accountable for its misreporting."

FAIR: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
Watchdog collective that advocates balanced reporting and exposes censored stories.

Media Matters
A research and education organization aimed at exposing right-leaning news bias.

Media Research Center
A research and education organization aimed at exposing left-leaning media bias.
Self proclaimed "citizen's coalition for responsible media," this site is affiliated with the Media Research Center (leans right).  

Media Smarts
Features canadian based media literacy programs and resources.

Project Censored
With a tagline of "Media Democracy in Action," this projects seeks to bring to light those news stories that have been eliminated from the regular news cycle by various efforts.   

Library Information and Media Center - Monona Grove High School - Monona, Wisconsin

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