Making sense of the campaign: Fairness and bias

CNL News Lesson

Lesson Outline

SERIES: Making sense of the campaign / Lessons in News Literacy. Drawing upon the 2016 presidential campaign for examples, this series of teacher's guides provides everything instructors will need to tailor foundational News Literacy lessons to their students and classroom. You'll find a detailed briefing identifying and applying specific News Literacy concepts, clear objectives and takeaways, multimedia, discussion questions and assignments that can be used in the classroom or as homework. We're also providing a PowerPoint presentation for classroom use that you can use or modify. We're also providing a PowerPoint presentation for classroom use that you can use or modify. As the campaign unfolds, we will supplement this guide with timely examples.

TOPIC: How news consumers can recognize fairness and bias in presidential campaign news coverage and their impact on the pursuit of trustworthy sources of news.

CONCEPT: Fairness, balance and bias.

OBJECTIVE: Students learn to recognize fair language, fair presentation and fair play, when balance contributes to fairness, when it undermines it by creating false equivalencies and how to spot bias, both in news coverage and in themselves. We also explore how media and audience bias affect the choices news consumers make as they seek trustworthy news sources.

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Does the news media take sides?

As primary voters were going to the polls in five states back in March, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: “If media wasn’t so biased against Trump, he would’ve won all the delegates.”

Although the most frequent target of Trump’s complaints of unfair treatment was Fox News Channel star Megyn Kelly, accusations of bias on the part of the "dishonest media" provided a recurring theme throughout that spring’s debates and campaign appearances. While Trump was railing at Kelly, who had repeated several of his most demeaning statements about women at the first GOP debate, supporters of Democrat Bernie Sanders were arguing that major news outlets like The New York Times weren’t taking the Sanders candidacy seriously.

If you looked at the Times home page, you’d see Hillary Clinton’s campaign regularly bought ads asking readers if they were “with her.” The home page also prominently showcases the Times’ opinion journalism, including its Jan. 30 endorsement of Clinton. 

Was it fair to conclude that The New York Times was “with her”?

The answer begins with understanding what News Literacy teaches us about fairness, balance and bias.

What is fairness?

Fair news coverage is marked by impartiality and honesty — free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism. Being fair to the people and institutions being covered means fair language, using neutral terms like “said” instead of “admitted” and not adopting the loaded language of political partisans. It means fair presentation, avoiding prejudicial photos and video. And it means fair play, including all relevant perspectives and giving candidates a chance to respond to negative charges.

Sometimes, fair play demands balance — equal prominence, equal space or equal time for both sides.

But because fairness is also about being fair to the evidence, sometimes balance is unfair.

With 10 or 11 candidates on stage during the early Republican presidential debates, moderators had to choose between allotting equal time to each one or allowing them to respond when attacked. (At one point, Ben Carson — who got less than half the speaking time as front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — joked, “Can somebody attack me, please?”) And when candidates evaded questions or got their facts wrong, moderators tried to follow up, even if that gave the front-runners even more speaking time. That, too, was done to be fair to the facts.

Although on the surface, balance can create the appearance of impartiality in political coverage, if the facts are clearly on one side, the result is false equivalency. Or, as columnist Paul Krugman puts it, “bothsidesism.”

Krugman says “too much of the news media still can’t break with bothsidesism — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.” Krugman has long argued that “if a presidential candidate were to assert that the earth was flat, news analysis articles would have the headline ‘Shape of the planet: Both sides have a point.’ ” Although neither party or candidate is arguing the earth is flat, Trump continues to refer to climate change as “a hoax.” Giving that position equal time or space would be unfair to the scientific evidence to the contrary.

Nonetheless, fair play does require including relevant perspectives, even if not in equal amounts.

Early in the campaign, an August 2015 BuzzFeed article was headlined: That Time Donald Trump Had A Meeting With DREAMers And Said “You Convinced Me” On Immigration.

The story recounted a meeting two years earlier when Trump hosted a group that included three immigration activists who were children of undocumented immigrants. After sharing their stories, the article said, the DREAMers were delighted to hear Trump say: “You’ve convinced me.” Or, at least that’s the way they recounted the story. The story didn’t include Trump’s recollections of the meeting. There was no indication BuzzFeed had sought a comment from Trump or a representative.

Was it bias?

It was unfair, but News Literacy defines bias as a pattern of unfairness over time, not an event.

You can’t determine bias by looking at one news story. You have to look at a particular news outlet’s coverage over time.

You also can’t determine a news outlet’s coverage is biased by looking at the advertising it sells or by what its editorials or opinion journalists say.

Both, however, can certainly create the appearance of bias, concluded Liz Spayd, The New York Times public editor. (A public editor is a colunust hired by a news outlet to assess its coverage, operating with more independence than any other staffer.)

Spayd, in a column headlined “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” said: “While one might debate the substance of the claims, the building blocks that created them are in plain sight.” Because the perception of bias can be as damaging to public trust as actual bias, the public editor recommends “leaving editorials on the editorial page, banning campaign ads from the home page … [and] building a better mix of values into the ranks of the newsroom’s urban progressives.”

How do you spot real bias?

You begin by reviewing the news articles the outlet publishes, looking for evidence of a pattern of unfairness. Margaret Sullivan, during her time as public editor, looked at the allegation that the Times practically ignored the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. After examining months of coverage, she concluded that the Times hadn’t taken Sanders seriously at first, and that the tone of articles about his campaign had been “dismissive, even mocking at times.”

To find bias, you also look at what a new outlet isn’t publishing by comparing its coverage with that of competitors. More recently, Spayd wrote about “The Clinton Story You Didn’t Read Here,” taking her paper to task for not covering misstatements the candidate made during a Fox News Channel interview.

Finally, you have to consider the self-interest of those alleging bias. It’s hard to take seriously Trump’s complaint that he would have won all the delegates if the media, hadn’t been so biased against him.

Because news judgment, by nature, is subjective, taking into account many factors in deciding the prominence articles, images and video receive, it’s an easy target for those who would allege bias. A controversial remark by Trump will likely get better play than a stump speech by Clinton. But sometimes the line between news judgment and bias can be crossed.

In July 2015, the Huffington Post news site announced it was relegating coverage of the Trump campaign to its entertainment section. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” it declared. “We won’t take the bait.” The following December, his success forced the news outlet to reverse that decision. But it continues to run at the bottom of stories about the candidate a disclaimer that says:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.

The Huffington Post, like some other partisan news outlets, makes no pretense of impartiality in the race.

What is audience bias?

Sometimes, though, the bias belongs not to the outlet, but to the news consumer as America grows more politically polarized. It’s a bias that has more to do with feelings than facts.

“Voters, it turns out, invariably make judgments that are heavily based on their emotional reactions and emotional factors,” wrote Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, in his 2007 book, “The Political Brain.” Just before the 2004 presidential election, Westen analyzed neuroimaging results of committed Democrats and Republicans presented with clearly contradictory statements made by candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. The surprising finding was not that the subjects found fault only with the other party's candidate, but that the part of their brains that processes emotions was clearly in charge. The parts associated with reasoning and conflict resolution were sitting this exercise out, while neural circuits involved in rewarding behavior were lighting up.

"Essentially," said Westen, "it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

In other words, when it comes to partisan politics, Westen concluded that our brains are ruled by emotion, with cognitive dissonance unconsciously driving confirmation bias.    

That may also explain why would readers would see bias in a news outlet that challenges the facts of a candidate they support

“It’s hard for all of us to admit that we’re wrong,” Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, told NPR’s “On the Media” during an interview. “It can be very uncomfortable, especially when what we’re admitting we’re wrong about implicates some aspect of our identity or world view.”

Your brain cares more about avoiding the anxiety, stress and discomfort of cognitive dissonance than it does about learning the truth. People tend to distort (or forget) incoming information that disagrees with their point of view. Cognitive dissonance also leads us to pursue news outlets that offer not only information but affirmation.

The latest Pew Research Center surveys support the idea that political ideology is playing a major role in consumers’ search for a trustworthy news outlet. It found liberals name an array of news sources they trust, including CNN, NPR, MSNBC and The New York Times. The survey found nearly half the conservatives who responded tightly clustered around one news source — Fox News Channel.

Pew also has studied the rise of social media as a news source and found two of three American adults said they use Facebook and 44 percent of them get news from the site — far more than YouTube, Instagram or Twitter.

Facebook, however, is no less of an echo chamber for news consumers than partisan cable news networks like Fox and MSNBC. Who you “like” shapes what news you see. Liberals and conservatives each see a feed of articles — and not all of it is journalism — designed to appeal to them and their Facebook friends.

The challenge facing news consumers trying to make informed choices on Election Day is to break out of the bubble — to seek out news from a variety of news sources — including, as President Barack Obama has suggested in the past, opinion journalism that challenges their own view of the world.


  1. Fairness is achieved through fair presentation, fair language and fair play.
  2. Balance — equal time or space — can promote fairness or create false equivalencies.
  3. Bias is a pattern of unfairness seen over time in a news outlet’s coverage (not in its ads or opinion journalism).
  4. Cognitive dissonance and the rise of partisan news outlets fuel audience bias and a distrust of the news media.
  5. To find the truth, news consumers should seek out journalism from a variety of news outlets and opinions they disagree with.


  1. In a political debate, would fairness be better served by strict balance — equal time for all — instead of allowing some more time to respond when they are attacked or asked follow-up questions?
  2. Early in the campaign, were the lack of coverage of Bernie Sanders or the Huffington Post’s decision to treat Donald Trump’s candidacy as entertainment news evidence of bias or defensible news judgments? 
  3. Is the rising number of people who get their news from Facebook and other social media outlets a positive development?


How biased are you?

Cognitive dissonance primarily involves implicit — not explicit — bias.

Go to the Project Implicit website, click on "I wish to proceed," and then select and take at least three of the listed tests.

After you have completed at least three of the tests, write 250 words on your reaction(s) to your results from each test. Keep in mind your own personal experiences and history and why you may have obtained the results you have, without assuming mechanical flaws in the test. Very important: Provide three or more examples and, as always, logical reasoning.


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