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Considering I’ve spent the last four and a half years in Public Relations, the idea of writing a guide to avoiding media bias might seem rather contradictory (if not downright self-destructive).
Still, with up to 70% of our news content having been influenced by PR, the ability to distinguish stories from spin is becoming an increasingly elusive skill (even for those of us within the industry!). While much of this content is nothing more than harmless puffery and consumerist promotions, there is also a darker side to the media’s manipulation. As the boundaries between news and publicity grow ever more blurred, the public’s ability to engage within debates and undertake informed decision making is significantly reduced. But it’s not just PR professionals who are to blame for this decline in media standards; both journalists and the public at large are equally at fault.
With a number of journalists having given up on filtering the crap, it falls to us to do it ourselves. How? Well conveniently enough, I’ve made a top ten list…
If you’re reading a piece of ‘news’ keep an eye out for calls to action, they’re pretty much anything asking you to “tune in”, “check out”, “download” or “subscribe”. Usually calls to action will be placed in the first or last paragraph, accompanied by a phone number, website address or even corporation name. Just remember, news is an impartial commentator and shouldn’t be asking you to do anything.
Thanks to the internet, news sources are now forced to rely on advertising money and ‘pay-per-click’ pricing structures. As a result, many of these sites write highly sensationalist headlines purely to encourage addition clicks and boost their revenues. Rather than encouraging this unethical and unashamed behaviour, try not to be drawn in and – wherever possible – just don’t click!
One way online publishers can create ever more sensationalist headlines is by phrasing them as questions. If I say “Ed Miliband has a sex dungeon” it’s essentially slander, but if I say “Does Ed Miliband have a sex dungeon?” I’ve created a highly click-friendly headline without actually committing to anything. Again, if you see a sensationalist headline posed as a question just don’t click!
Journalism that doesn’t expose its sources is rarely real journalism at all. “A source” could mean anything from a PR agency to an ill-informed bloke down the pub. It’s nonsense.
When reading anything in the paper, try to play devil’s advocate. One way of doing this is to access information from a wider selection of sources. Usually if The Times is saying that new land developments will create homes and jobs, the Guardian will be saying it damages local wildlife. While both are valid points, the only way to gain a more complete picture is by accessing a broader variety of news.