Each week, Ad Fontes Media chooses a widely-covered trending news topic to share insight into how our analysts rank news coverage for the Media Bias Chart®. We look at coverage of one story across multiple news outlets to explore its Venn diagram: where the outlets reported something the same or where they diverged, which elements were highlighted, and which ones were absent – these have come to be known as our Topic of the Week (Starter and Advanced).
Once we choose a set of articles, a pod of analysts with diverse political perspectives (one right leaning, one center, and one left leaning) read each article and use Ad Fontes Media’s content analysis methodology to determine its bias and reliability. They discuss the article and more often than not come to a consensus on its ratings, each person’s opinion is considered by the others, helping everyone to see past their own biases.
That’s not to say our analysts always agree. They are human after all. If they have irreconcilable differences about a particular article, that article goes to another pod to berated. Very, very occasionally we will get an article that is such a point of contention that our CEO and founder, Vanessa Otero, snags it for our weekly training sessions.
Using a common methodology and working with other analysts who have different ideologies is unusual. It is an interesting situation that has a profound impact on the way we think about the news. It is a great opportunity to talk to people about politics who think differently than you do. The content analysis training we complete on the way to becoming analysts provides us with a common vocabulary and methodology for how to parse news articles for bias and reliability. During that training, we focus on several factors that inform each main heading that we examine on our way to rating news and news-like content.
The main factors we consider when rating bias are:
- Political Position (whether the article advocates for one)
- Language (how the article refers to political issues or opponents)
- Comparison (to other articles written about a particular topic)
There is, of course, quite a bit of nuance, and the bias spectrum is based on the current policy positions of elected officials’ published beliefs of current elected officials of each party, which change over time. But what is the news if not a reflection of our society? And that never stays the same for long.
The main factors we consider when rating reliability are:
- Expression (whether the article is expressed as fact reporting, analysis, or opinion)
- Veracity (how true is the article?)
- Headline & Graphics (Is the Headline/Graphic timely, fair and relevant to the article you just read?)
I spent over a decade teaching media literacy to high school students, and have used the Ad Fontes methodology in classes for both freshman and seniors. It was with the freshmen that I saw the most interesting developments. Teaching content analysis for news articles is not a simple task, and for ninth grade students, it requires a lot more context than it does for older students who are ostensibly more aware of the political landscape. It involves teaching them the basic sentiments of both major political parties – where they stand on issues like guns, abortion, etc. so that they can recognize bias in the news. It also involves teaching them lateral reading, which is the act of opening more tabs in your browser, and searching for how the story is being treated by other news outlets or how the story you are reading is different. It is not a simple or quick process, but watching students put it all together and realize when an article is right or left leaning, or missing chunks of a story to make it appear like a conspiracy, or is simple clickbait – that’s the good stuff. And if fourteen year olds can do it, you can too.
If you’re interested in learning more about how we rate the news or our resources for educators, check out our website. We have materials that will help anyone of any age learn. Also be sure to check in next week for a more regular formatted episode of Topic of the Week!
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Sara Webb is a cybersecurity consultant and former high school librarian from Philadelphia, PA. She holds an M.S. in Informatics and an M. Ed in School Library and Information Technology, and has been a media literacy educator for over a decade. Sara started with Ad Fontes Media in July 2020 as a Media Analyst, and she currently continues in that role and as in-house Media Literacy Specialist. When not engrossed in media literacy projects, Sara can be found at the barn with her ex-racehorse Homer, or training her corgis for dog agility competitions.