Election and Political News

Journalism has been described as the lifeblood of democracy,[1] and elections, likewise, have long been journalism’s bread and butter. The relationship between the two, however, has always been fraught. Even Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong advocate for freedom of the press, said while he was president that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Although journalists and news organizations are more trusted in Canada than in many other countries, many people feel – especially at election time – that they can’t rely on the press for accurate, unbiased news about political issues. In part, this is because of a misunderstanding of what bias is and how it operates in media. The fact is that every source and story has some kind of bias, such as:

  • Bias through selection and omission: What is included, and what is left out? Identifying which facts are most relevant and which can be left out is an important part of a journalist’s job, but it’s more of an art than a science. Even the most responsible, objective journalists can fall prey to giving more space to opinions they agree with, voices in languages they understand, or sources who are easier to reach for comments. As with most biases, we are often unaware of these unless something forces us to confront them. When Adrienne LaFrance, an editor at The Atlantic, was prompted by the Global Media Monitoring Project to review a year of her own reporting, she discovered that she had quoted three times as many men as women – and that more than a third of the 136 stories she’d written had no quotes from women in them at all.[2]
  • Bias through placement: Almost as important as what’s included is where it’s included: is it on the front page or buried in the back? The lead story of the newscast or just after the last commercial? Print journalists are taught to write stories in what’s called the “inverted pyramid” style, with the most newsworthy facts first, the most important details relating to those facts next, and background information last, knowing that many readers won’t read the whole story. Again, even the most objective and conscientious journalists will introduce some bias through those choices – and even more can be added later when the editor composes the headline, which has the potential to give readers a completely different impression than the story itself.[3]
  • Bias through emphasis: Words with different connotations (is someone a “terrorist,” a “revolutionary” or a “freedom fighter”?), different ways of phrasing statistics (do 40 percent of people fly kites, or do 60 percent not do it?), and images with emotional value (is the accused criminal shown being led away in handcuffs, or looking angelic in his yearbook photo?) can all change our perceptions of a story. The role of photos in producing bias was spotlighted in 2014 under the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, where African-Americans shared contrasting photos of themselves – both the stereotyped images that would likely be used by the press if they were killed or arrested and the images of themselves with family, at school, or at work that would be ignored – to show how “ordinary people – students, servicemen and women, community volunteers – could be made to look like a public menace with one photo dropped in a particular context.”[4]

While some bias is inevitable in every story, it’s also possible for different people to perceive different biases. Sometimes this is a matter of perspective – for instance the mid-20th-century journalism that we hold as a gold standard today was, in fact, heavily biased in favour of White, male, Christian, straight, and upper/middle-class voices – but it can also be a matter of perception, as much in the eye of the beholder as in the story itself. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people on two sides of an issue to both feel that the same story is biased against them, a phenomenon called “hostile media effect” that has been observed in everything from football games to war reporting. Ironically, this can sometimes be made worse by efforts to be objective by including voices from opposing sides.[5]

Perhaps it is this slippery nature of bias that has made many news consumers, especially young ones, more aware of but also less willing to negotiate it. As teacher and writer Erik Palmer says, “the default used to be ‘I believe’ and is shifting to ‘I don't believe anything.’”[6] In a 2017 study of attitudes towards news in nine countries, a quarter of respondents did not feel that news does a good job “separating fact from fiction,” mostly due to perceptions of bias, “spin” and the political agendas of news outlets: “Simply put, a significant proportion of the public feels that powerful people are using the media to push their own political or economic interests, rather than represent ordinary readers or viewers.”[7]

Not believing anything is a clear road to apathy and to feeling a lack of efficacy and investment in the political system – obviously a bad thing for any democracy – but a greater risk is that more awareness of bias can lead to people only seeking out media that confirms their own biases. This has, in fact, almost always been the default: researchers have found that most news outlets’ biases are not the result of their owners’ political views but, rather, their readers’.[8]

What has changed, though, is that many of us get our news (or are first exposed to news stories) through sources such as search engines or social media. These platforms make their money largely by building profiles of us and then using these profiles to deliver content tailored to what we do, like and believe. This includes relevant advertisements as well as news stories that confirm our biases (either because they match our profile or because our like-minded friends have shared them). These platforms are also configured to deliver the most engaging content, which may become viral because it is heavily biased, outrageous, or “too good to be true.” Even if we don't fully believe such a story, it can come to seem more credible just by being repeated – especially by people we know, such as in our friends’ news and Twitter feeds.[9] Even more than individual citizens, journalists – who are some of the heaviest users of social networks – can be subject to the same “echo chamber” effect, meaning that the algorithmically-filtered content these social networks deliver to them can influence a wider audience by setting the agenda on traditional news outlets such as TV and radio.[10]

This matters because we are naturally inclined to believe things, even things that are unbelievable, if they reinforce what we already think to be true. This effect is even more powerful when it comes to stronger beliefs, such as politics or ideology: one study found that more than half of people will accept wildly inaccurate claims if they align with their political views. (The same effect was found on both sides of the political spectrum.)[11]

By appealing to our biases and beliefs, these claims, words and images can trigger what’s called “hot cognition,” which puts emotion in the driver’s seat and changes how we view everything we read or hear afterwards[12] – to the extent that information that contradicts our beliefs can actually make us more committed to them.[13] Consciously or unconsciously, writers often compound this by using terms that signal adherence to one viewpoint or another – “oil sands” instead of “tar sands,” for instance.[14] Use of terms like these, which implicitly show the writer’s political affiliation, may in part explain why people who know more about politics are actually more likely to stick to their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.[15]

Many of the things that characterize our modern news environment – the ability to select only news we agree with, the delivery of news that is algorithmically filtered to engage our emotions, the ease with which misinformation spreads into legitimate news, and the tendency (as a result of these other factors) for news outlets to tailor their content to their core audience’s beliefs – have “unambiguously negative implications for democratic deliberation. When individuals accept misinformation used to support policy arguments, or, even worse, when they choose to trumpet that misinformation to justify their position on an issue, they may well lead others who are not aware that the information is inaccurate to adopt a position they would not otherwise hold.”[16]

The good news is that while knowing more about politics does not protect us from being misled by biases – our own or others’ – media literacy does. Readers who have received media literacy training are significantly less likely to agree with inaccurate claims, whether or not they agree with the reader’s own beliefs. Though media literacy is sometimes perceived as having its own ideological slant, this effect was the same regardless of the readers’ political beliefs, with those who identified as liberals being as likely to reject false claims that aligned with their beliefs as those who identified as conservatives. Media literacy education produces citizens who “still hold strong values and beliefs, but […] adopt a critical stance when evaluating an argument– even when that argument aligns with their partisan preferences.”[17]


[1] Davidson, Sandy and Betty Winfield. ”Journalism: The Lifeblood of a Democracy” in What Good is Journalism? How Reporters and Editors are Saving America's Way of Life. University of Missouri Press, 2007.
[2] LaFrance, Adrienne. “I Analyzed a Year of me Reporting for Gender Bias and This is What I Found.” Medium, September 30, 2013.
[3] Konnikova, Maria. “How Headlines Change the Way We Think.” The New Yorker, December 17, 2014.
[4] Poniewozik, James. “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown and What Hashtag Activism Does Right.” Time, August 11, 2014.
[5] Stray, Jonathan. “How Do You Tell When the News is Biased? It Depends on How You See Yourself.” Nieman Lab, June 2012.
[6] Forde, Leslie. “Teaching Media Literacy in the Era of Fake News”" The Spark, November 11, 2017.
[7] Newman, Nic and Dr. Richard Fletcher. “Bias, Bullshit and Lies: Audience Perspectives on Low Trust in the Media.” Digital News Project, December 1, 2017.
[8] Gentzkow, Matthew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers.” Econometrica, Vol. 78, No. 1 (January, 2010), 35–7.
[9] Carey, Benedict. “How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media.” The New York Times, October 20 2017.
[10] Klein, Ezra. “Something is breaking American politics, but it’s not social media.” Vox, April 12, 2017.
[11] Kahne, Joseph and Benjamin Bowyer. Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation. American Educational Research Journal, Vol 54, Issue 1, pp. 3 - 34. First Published February 1, 2017
[12] Lodge, M., & Taber, C. S. (2005). The automaticity of affect for political leaders, groups, and issues: An experimental test of the hot cognition hypothesis. Political Psychology, 26, 455–482.
[13] Redlawsk, David. (2002). Hot Cognition or Cool Consideration? Testing the Effects of Motivated Reasoning on Political Decision Making. Political Science Publications. 64. 10.1111/1468-2508.00161.
[14] Cosh, Colby. “Don’t call them ‘tar sands.’” Maclean’s, April 3, 2012.
[15] Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755–769. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00214.x
[16] Kahne, Joseph and Benjamin Bowyer. Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation. American Educational Research Journal, Vol 54, Issue 1, pp. 3 - 34. First Published February 1, 2017.
[17] Kahne, Joseph and Benjamin Bowyer. Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation. American Educational Research Journal, Vol 54, Issue 1, pp. 3 - 34. First Published February 1, 2017.