How to hack the media’s biases

How to hack the media’s biases

Journalists often claim to be impartial; to report ‘just the facts’.

This is BS. Biases are inherent to the production of journalism.

Yes, they are generally negative things. But they also present an opportunity.

The bias-berg

First let's be clear on what you're looking at when you cry 'bias!'

Below is what I call the bias-berg. It shows the biases at play when media is produced, as documented in Brooke Gladstone's 2011 book "The Influencing Machine"1.

When you claim that a journalist is biased2, you're usually seeing their ideological bias. But it's harder to see the other types of bias beneath.

These are bad for public discourse. Ideally, these biases wouldn't exist. Journalists would be publishing accurate, unvarnished stories on what's happening in the world, and a hyper-informed public would be consuming them all.

But they are a reality, and because the media industry is collapsing and consumers see news as entertainment, journalists feel the pull of these biases more strongly than ever before. And your opponents are taking advantage of them.

So here's how you can exploit them too, whenever you pitch a journalist to get coverage for your cause.

Ideological bias

Let's get the big one of the way first. Ideological bias is the idea that a journalist's beliefs seep into their reporting.

To have ideological bias is to be human. You should strive to keep it in check. But you can never see an issue with complete impartiality.

And experts (see: journalists) are worse than non-experts at doing this.

Think about it: as soon as a journalist takes one fact and presents it together with another, their opinions start showing through. Because of which facts they choose to emphasise and how. (Yes, even in a piece labelled ‘news’.)

Here’s writer Matt Taibbi on this:

To pretend there’s such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly. [..] Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story.

LA Times reporter Matt Pearce goes even further3:

Meanwhile, here are the ‘values’ that Reuters, for example, claims to live by:

Reuters would not be Reuters without freedom from bias. This neutrality is a hallmark of our news brand and allows us to work on all sides of an issue, conflict or dispute without any agenda other than accurate, fair reporting. [..] We never identify with any side in an issue, conflict or dispute. Our text and visual stories need to reflect all sides, not just one.

Yeah, right.

If you're looking for coverage, you can’t push back against a journalist's ideological bias. You can't rewire their brains to be more supportive of your cause. You can only factor this bias into your pitch.

Which is why I'm going to look at the other biases below the waterline on the bias-berg. (The quotes are from The Influencing Machine.)

Commercial bias

News needs conflict and momentum. Journalists crave novelty.
Fencer Lego figures fighting with swords
Photo by Stillness InMotion / Unsplash

Unfortunately, commercial realities are forcing journalists to report on elections as horse races, on foreign policy as good vs evil, on the pandemic as sensible people vs reckless idiots. It's how our information ecosystem is shaped today, and only deep, systemic shifts will change it.

Meanwhile, 24-hour news cycles and crushed attention spans mean novelty in media rules supreme.

So, don’t pitch journalists an update to the news you sent them last week. Instead, make your pitch stand out by turning it into a fresh, vivid story of two sides battling it out. Draw the lines for the journalist already.

And make it personal. It’s easier for a journalist's readers to get mad at another person than at an organisation, or an idea. “Powerful person X is doing Y, which screws over powerless people Z" is often an irresistible framing for a journalist, that translates to more reader engagement and a happier editor.

Bad news bias

We are wired to care about anything that even remotely threatens us — so emphasising bad news is good for business.
Source: Getty Images

COVID, terrorism, social media addiction and online misinformation are all issues our planet is grappling with today.

But do they deserve the wall-to-wall coverage they get, while other news falls off the radar? No. This is bad news bias in action.

So, hack it. Frame your issue in stark terms. Tell journalists what will happen to the world if your cause isn’t taken up. Turn it into a script worthy of a horror movie.

Status quo bias

Just kidding. (Source: The Guardian)
Human beings tend to oppose change unless the benefits are guaranteed to be huge, and the risks miniscule.

Status quo bias guarantees that the journalist will likely reject any position pushing for radical change.

But radical solutions are what you're after! So, tone down the revolutionary rhetoric. Make what you’re calling for sound reasonable. Back it up with quotes from serious people advocating for your cause.

Access bias

Reporters believe they must patrol the halls of power, but the price of admission is steep. Antagonise power and the door is barred. So sometimes journalists dance with the devil. Whenever reporters quote a ‘senior administration official’, they’ve allowed their source to hide.
Source: Collider

This dirty tactic is also known as ‘officials say’ journalism.

I came across it often as an activist during the Greek financial crisis in the early 2010s. Our opponents in the EU establishment would regularly seed unattributed quotes to Reuters. Then the news organisation would write up entire stories, based only on anonymous quotes4. It had a devastating effect in amplifying the Establishment's narrative, and turning public opinion against Greece.

Yours is an asymmetric battle by definition — you against power — so you can’t hack this. But you can call out any journalist who has written a piece that relies on anonymous sourcing and impedes your cause. It’s bad journalism and they feel bad for doing it.

Throw the book at them, and their editors, on Twitter.

Visual bias

News with a visual hook is more likely to be noticed.

Send photography with your pitch! And make sure it bleeds.

Narrative bias

Who doesn’t love a good story?
Now I can read in the dark.
Photo by Nong Vang / Unsplash

Journalists depend on storytelling shortcuts to make their work digestible and accessible. George W. Bush was a ‘frat boy’. Obama was ‘professorial’. Greece was ‘the problem child of the EU’. Afghanistan is the ‘graveyard of empires’.

And a good story requires a beginning, a middle and an end.

Lean into these shortcuts by referencing them in your pitches. This will make it easier for the journalist to integrate your into their piece.

And make sure your pitch has a beginning, a middle and an end. Package it like the story that it is.

Fairness bias

Journalists will bend over backwards to appear balanced by offering equal time to opposing viewpoints, even when they aren’t equal.
The media's fairness bias was exploited to capsize John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. But enough sinking boat metaphors.

Fairness bias is also known as false balance. People who deny humans are making the planet hotter have exploited it very effectively.

But you can also use it for your cause, for example to get coverage for grassroots activists during an anti-government protest. Or to get your David mentioned in a piece about Goliath.

And arguably, in today's polarised media environment, sneering, dismissive coverage might be better than none.

TL;DR

All journalists have a point of view. Don’t obsess over their ideological bias.

But do be aware of other biases that are present in the production of journalism. They aren't inherently good things, but they are a reality of today's information ecosystem. So you can use them to your advantage.

That’s all for now. Cheers and see you next week,

Mehran


Notes

1: If you think I'm attacking the media here, consider that Gladstone does media commentary for... NPR. She's hardly a hater of 'liberal media'.

2: For the sake of accuracy, The Influencing Machine doesn't mention 'ideological bias' specifically, but covers it in a separate chapter on 'objectivity'.

3: The idea of journalists as activists is fiercely contested by my friends in the media, for obvious reasons. But note how many journalists are moving away from legacy outlets to Substack and finding their real voices. Or how Joe Rogan's podcast is more popular today than US legacy media outlets. Owning your views instead of playing ‘objective’ has an audience today, and it’s growing. This is a good sign.

4: Yes, that's the same Reuters who, on the Standards and Values page I quoted from earlier, claims it only publishes news from single, anonymous source "in exceptional cases". Not that I have anything against Reuters, of course...

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