Ideas have power.
With great power, comes great responsibility, right? We have a responsibility to make sure that the ideas we are putting out in the world on social media are true, helpful, and most importantly, true.
I am by no means an expert in this field. I’m just an exhausted freedom fighter who is tired of seeing people I know and love tear each other apart over half-truths and fake news. What’s ironic is that the thought that they themselves could ever be duped by the system they hate so much for its bias has never entered their darkest dreams. Never realizing that if it’s biased for them then it’s probably biased for you too.
It’s hard to find a person these days who thinks the media is telling us an unbiased truth. At least I’m not finding many. I happen to know some in the media world and I know that their intent is honestly to inform the public, not to sway its opinion. But of course, that’s my anecdotal slice of truth that I can speak to.
For everything else, I only get what I see and what I see is ugly.
When we read something online or watch a video containing what passes for “news” today, we have to make sure that we ourselves are not part of the problem. Our responsibility (before ever sharing content) is to decide how we are going to take it. I see more people working overtime to poke holes in news that doesn’t agree with their preferred narrative than actually researching and considering the truth of it.
In a social media world, fake, biased, and inaccurate news can be extremely dangerous and hurtful. It can embolden terrible theology as well as encourage behaviors and attitudes that cause some to actually go out and physically harm others. When you share ideas, you give power to those who use them responsibly and to those who do not.
So for the rest of this I’m going to share what I’m learning about recognizing bias and inaccuracies in media and I hope that you will consider these ideas before you share things online. If you are a church communicator, it is imperative you know how to recognize bias so that you can advise leadership and monitor online discussions faithfully. I hope that you will consider the power of your ideas and how they can both positively and negatively impact the world before you argue it in a comment section.
Major Types of Bias
For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to look at two types of bias: Implicit bias and Confirmation bias, as these two are the most prevalent on social media today. First, some definitions…
Implicit bias: An unconscious bias that causes you to say you believe one idea, but behave or speak in a manner that contradicts that belief.
Confirmation bias: The search for information and sources that say what you already believe to confirm that you are right while ignoring dissenting viewpoints.
This type of bias is what allows some to say things that are racist without ever recognizing or believing that it is racist. They aren’t trying to be racist. They don’t want to be racist. They are truly on the side of minorities in many ways.
However, there are racist phrases and attitudes that have been so normalized in this person’s life that to challenge the racism in their life is to challenge their very existence (in their mind). It’s the type of thing that allows you to use the n-word as a white person but claim that you are not racist because you have lots of black friends.
Another example of implicit bias could be that your friends all look like you or you may only date within your own race or economic standing. You may tell people about your “gay friend” or your “black friend” but I bet you seldom refer to your other white friends as your “straight white friends.” These are examples of implicit bias. We all have it somehow, but we don’t all have an acute awareness of it.
In media, it’s usually in the adjectives where you will see implicit bias.
How does one news channel describe a situation or person vs. how another describes the situation or person? The adjectives are revealing of their implicit bias. But we’ll get to that.
This type of bias is one of the major dangers of getting all your news from social media. Social media exists to show you what you WANT to see. It’s circular reasoning and depends heavily on your acceptance of Anecdotal and Straw Man logical fallacies.
Recognizing this type of bias should be easy, but it isn’t. Ask yourself, “Am I considering both sides or just trying to fuel my side? Am I searching for news sources that support what I already think or am I searching for truth? Am I actually open to having my mind changed on this? If you’re not open to that, then confirmation bias might be your drug of choice.
This is typically hashed out in the Fox News vs. CNN debate. Left or Right? Republican or Democrat? Christian or Atheist? False dichotomies or false dichotomies?
When you’re only compiling evidence to win a debate rather than searching for truth, everyone loses. Confirmation bias cannot be fixed simply by exposing yourself to alternative ideas. You must honestly be open to considering whether or not they are right and you are wrong. Beating confirmation bias is a heart issue, not a head issue.
The true remedy for confirmation bias is empathy, something our world is running short of these days. So I suggest this: SEARCH FOR TRUTH AND LET IT BUILD ITS OWN CASE.
In media, confirmation bias can be seen in the assumptions the author makes.
Things to pay attention to before sharing
When you scroll across a news story, there are several things you must look for before you share them with your network. It’s your responsibility to do this, so if you’re not willing to do it, then don’t share. The world doesn’t need more noise anyway and you’re only making things worse.
Here’s a shortlist of major things to pay attention to before sharing news and opinions on social media:
Pay attention to the continuity of headline and story
Do they agree or not? Did the headline seem to favor the story’s subject and the actual story did not? Was the headline misleading in any way or is what you see what you get?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a headline only to open the article and find that the story wasn’t really what I thought.
Pay attention to the source (s)
If the website is something that seems familiar, check those small details. There’s a big difference between cnn.com and cnn.co (I have no idea if that’s an actual website, just for illustration purposes).
Always check for unsubstantiated facts/data in the story. When a story says something like “Senator Filibuster continued his long-standing pattern of not knowing what’s going on…” that’s an unsubstantiated claim. They didn’t give examples of that claim to support that statement but got away with making you feel like Senator Filibuster is an idiot. The good senator might not be an idiot, but now readers are ready to duel to the death over the senator’s longstanding pattern of not knowing what’s going on.
Last, look for sources. Who did they interview and what are their qualifications? Where are they getting their data? Was it from this year or from 10 years ago?
Pay attention to loaded language
Adjectives, double standards, name-calling, stereotyping, etc. These are all ways to shape how you’re supposed to feel about the news before you really even understand what’s happening. The words they add to describe a person or policy will tell you what they think about it. Try to see past the adjectives and how they feel about it before deciding how you feel about it.
Pay attention to the hero of the story.
Who does it champion? Who benefits from you agreeing with the loaded language? The hero of the story should be you being a more informed person, not a drone of one side or the other. In my opinion, the news should be about information, not the media outlet’s agenda.
Pay attention to the context.
Did they leave anything out? What were the circumstances surrounding the video/story? It’s not hard to find a video of police brutality or protestors getting out of control. Often, we don’t know what happened before or after the slice of video we see. Honestly, sometimes it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a great deal.
I can give examples all day of what this looks like, but I won’t. Just be careful to research the video carefully and get your facts straight before you share it condemning or praising it.
One news source wants you to favor the protestors, one wants you to favor the police. These are not mutually exclusive, and a wise person will know that.
What to do when you recognize bias
Choose your battles
Most of the time, there’s not much you can do except refuse to take it at face value. There’s so much confusion out there it’s hard to make sense of it. If you’re not willing to do the research, then it shouldn’t be a hill you’re willing to die on or lose friends over. That’s just irresponsible.
Call it out
Of course, you can decide that it’s worth calling out, just try to do so in the kindest way possible. By the way, most people think they’re more kind online than they actually are. Get rid of any sarcasm, humor, or sassiness when you call out bias or you may make the person who posted it feel attacked, putting them on the defensive.
It’s embarrassing when you make a mistake and no one wants to have their mistakes aired in public, much less ridiculed or insulted because of them.
If you’re not sure how they’ll take a public message (or if you’re capable of not being snarky) then use private messages first and let them know that 1) they shared something biased and 2) ask if it’s cool if you point it out in the comments so others won’t be misled.
Message the news source
If you feel strongly enough about it, you can always message the news source themselves. I’m not sure how much good it will do, but at least you can say you tried when you go after them publicly on Twitter later.
Ask them to update the article for clarity or correct data if you like. It’s totally our right to hold the media responsible for accurate reporting and if you do it in a kind way, they will probably thank you for it. The people I know in the media would be just as horrified as you if they suddenly learned that they had printed something inaccurate or misleading.
If you’ve tried to reason with the source and believe the news to be fake or harmful, you can always try to report it to the Social Media platform’s police group and request they take it down. Sadly, we live in a time where you may have to go public before a media group or social platform will listen. Just remember that you represent Jesus no matter what avenue you choose to pursue.
Sources & Suggested Reading
As I said, I’m not an expert on media bias, so I put together a list of sources that helped me with this article. Read more about it in much more detail than I went into on this blog below and please share responsibly!
Seth has been in ministry for over 20 years, recently serving as Communications Director at a thriving church in North Dallas. He is also the host of The Seminary of Hard Knocks podcast, blogs at sethmuse.com, and has his Masters of Arts in Media and Communications from Dallas Theological Seminary. Seth specializes in helping church communicators use social media and content marketing to find common ground with their audience to empower them for spiritual growth.