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Q&A: What is media bias and how can this be tackled? (Includes interview)

Dr. Tania Ahuja (founder and CEO of Nobias) is a leader and an expert in online news bias and manipulation. Dr. Ahuja was a director of Citigroup and she serves on the Board of Overseers at Stern School of Business, NYU.

Digital Journal caught up with Dr. Tania Ahuja to discuss the topic of media bias and the digital technologies available that can help a reader to assess the reliability of an online article.

Digital Journal: How do you assess news bias?

Dr. Tania Ahuja: Online news has become increasingly commercial. Rather than news itself being the product, the customer is the product – or rather his or her attention as carefully monitored by clicks and rewarded by advertising dollars. News “Netflix” models are springing up everywhere. As a result, we see more and more articles written in a way that will interest their readers; recent studies have shown that our own biases for sensational and negative news has led to more radical rather than impartial, factual news.

Many journalists subconsciously infuse their articles with bias, as argumentative pieces inherently incorporate personal opinion. Nobias understands the nuances of news and is not looking to change it–at the end of the day, news is still educational and crucial to the public. Rather, we are looking to provide context so readers are aware of exactly what they consume – how biased it is relative to other articles published that week, how credible is the author and the editorial rating of the source which oversees the publishing of the article.

DJ: Do you use any technology to assist with the interpretation?

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Ahuja: Nobias uses machine learning and natural language processing–a simple bag-of-words unigram–to determine the bias of each article you read. While others categorize political biases of sources based on subjective rating of article samples, our technology objectively and transparently provides readers insights on the current article and, importantly, allows us to assess articles not only from big publications, but local newspapers as well.

DJ: How do you grade bias?

Ahuja: Nobias draws from the methodology of Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro published in Econometrica (2010), a top economics journal, to determine political bias. This data evaluates the leanings of a news source by looking at key phrases used by Democrat and Republicans in Congressional speeches. The phrases determine left, right, or neutral leaning. Nobias also utilizes editorial rating information from LexisNexis to identify credible sources, both at the website and author levels. Sources are ranked from 1-5; a 1 rating is a top national, international, or business news source, such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Authors are ranked based on their employer rank and on whether they have won journalistic awards.

DJ: What types of biases are the most common?

Ahuja: At the moment, we have placed political bias at the forefront of our focus. After perfecting our beta extension focused on solely providing information on U.S. political bias and author credibility, we plan to expand into gender and financial news biases as well as to international news.

DJ: Are these biases deliberate or the result of institutional factors?

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Ahuja: While some online news sources intentionally provide a partisan perspective to advance their agenda, most sources propagate biases that are the result of institutional factors. As individual bias is often the result of subconscious understanding of the covert hierarchy in one’s environment, biases prevalent in the news reflect the journalist’s perspective applied to current events. The bias in the newsfeed is further exacerbated by the readers’ own unconscious bias if news “Netflix” models are in use.

DJ: What is the impact of these in terms of public perception?

Ahuja: Alternative facts and heavily biased news are providing each person with a different reality. Someone in the Midwest is not going to understand the world the same way someone from the Northeast would–this is not to say that that differing opinions are bad; differing facts are. We are already at a point where basic facts such as Obama’s birthplace, global warming, and the existence of HIV/AIDS, are disputed.

DJ: Are some news agencies worse than others for bias?

Ahuja: We believe that political bias is a spectrum and therefore while some sources are more biased than others, even a credible source might have occasional strongly opinionated articles. Most do contain op-ed sections and other columns where bias often lives and is more acceptable.

We label sources (Left, Center-Left, Center, Center-Right, Right) based on the median leaning of their articles and we provide a 5-scale article rating (Reliably-Left, Likely Left, Center, Likely Right, Reliably-Right) to provide perspective on more or less moderate biases in various sources.

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DJ: Is biased news and fake news different?

Ahuja: Yes, they are different. Nobias’s beta version has two separate methodologies for characterizing fake news (i.e. our credibility rating) and biased news (i.e. our political slant rating). We see fake news as providing “alternative facts” or blatant inaccuracies. In contrast, while biased news might not provide false truths, it might offer the opinions of one side more readily than the other, or omit the other perspective entirely.

While credible or fake news is more binary–dealing with facts vs. fiction, neutral or biased news deals with opinion and perspective. Nobias uses editorial ratings generated by LexisNexis to determine credibility. These editorial ranks are applied to news outlets only. It is a source-level categorization indicating LexisNexis editorial ranking of the source. Author’s credibility draws on the strength of the editorial ranking, where they work and whether they have won journalistic awards. Political slant is determined entirely independently using the Gentzkow methodology.

DJ: What are the best sources of news, in terms of being bias free?

Ahuja: Completely bias-free news is hard to come by as most authors are likely biased. Nobias is not pushing for completely unbiased news; at the end of the day, people want their news to interest them–which, for better or worse, cannot be plain facts with no spin. We just want readers to recognize their biases and approach news cognizant of them. There are a few sources that are Nobias-certified centrist, on the other hand, that apply a lot of effort to remain impartial in their reporting. These include BBC News, Bloomberg, Reuters, The Hill, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.

DJ: Who does your company provide services for?

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Ahuja: Nobias provides services for politically conscious individuals looking to burst their filter bubble and gain a broader perspective of the news they receive.

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