This guest post was submitted by Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research at William & Mary, and Nathan Elwood, Library Administrator at the Missouri Legislative Library.
The Media Bias Chart, commonly referred to simply as “The Chart,” has become ubiquitous in discussion of information literacy and news evaluation. The Chart, for those unaware, attempts to differentiate trustworthy and untrustworthy media sources based on two axes: bias and reliability.
Despite the popularity of this memetic tool, it raises a whole host of issues that must be addressed as part of our larger information literacy conversations.
The Chart promotes a false equivalency between left and right, lionizes a political “center” as being without bias, reinforces harmful perceptions about what constitutes “news” in our media ecosystem, and is ignored by anyone that doesn’t already hold a comparable view of the media landscape.
The Chart is a meme, not an information literacy tool, and as librarians we need to be clear-eyed about these flaws. As Ad Fontes Media released version 7.0 last month, we thought it was a good time to explore our concerns.
Origins of The Chart
First published in December 2016 by Vanessa Otero, The Chart was originally simple and informal, placing sources on a “liberal” to “conservative” left-right axis, and along a vertical axis of credibility ranging from “complex” to “clickbait.” As with all iterations of The Chart, this resulted in sources arranged in a rough pyramid, with sources ranked the most “mainstream” and “complex” as being of the highest information value.
Creator Vanessa Otero does not come from an information literacy background. While currently an intellectual property lawyer, her previous professional experience was in pharmaceutical sales and as a Regional Advisor for Noveau Riche, a non-accredited vocational school specializing in real estate investing. In 2010, amidst accusations of being a multi-level marketing scam, Nouveau Riche dissolved. In 2011, the founders of the company were fined more than $5 million by the Arizona Corporation Commission for defrauding students.
Otero says The Chart is a “passion project” and could be useful to consumers and advertisers.
Within weeks of the first iteration’s release, The Chart became a viral phenomenon. It also received pushback from far-right outlets after seeing Infowars, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller all grouped in the bottom-far right, a quadrant labeled as not credible.
However, criticism of the original meme wasn’t exclusive to the far-right. Left-wingers noticed the conspiracy site “Natural News” grouped at the bottom left of the liberal/conservative axis.
Natural News, it was quickly pointed out, was a known purveyor of far-right conspiracy theories, such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting being a false-flag. The far-left/extremely “liberal” grouping for the site, Otero justified through the site’s “anti-corporate and popular liberal pseudo-science positions.” Natural News has since fluctuated across the spectrum, before arriving on the far-right in the current iteration.
In the original iterations of The Chart, all evaluation of sources was conducted by Otero herself. However, after her formation in 2018 of Ad Fontes Media, analysis is conducted by a team of writers, journalists, and other professionals.
Whenever a new item is evaluated, it is analyzed by a team of at least 3 of these analysts, “with an equal number from left-leaning, center-leaning, and right-leaning perspectives.”
One of the most common points of justification for this project and similar endeavors is that the analysis they conduct is “bipartisan” in this manner. This is something that has been left uninterrogated within the library profession for far too long. It may seem like a strange question, but what is actually “good” about a bipartisan analysis?
When Donald Trump claims that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville riots, we can easily identify what a facile, deceptive framing this is. So why do we allow it within our media analysis?
Say you have, like Ad Fontes Media does, a “bipartisan” group of analysts; evenly mixed between liberals/leftists, conservatives, and centrists. For the purposes of this example, feel free to dismiss that liberals aren’t actually classified as “Left” in most understandings of political science. Instead, consider what the conservative viewpoint genuinely brings to the table.
On January 6th, a majority (68%) of Republican lawmakers, the representative body of the conservative viewpoint in American politics, voted to overturn a free and fair presidential election based on unsubstantiated and proven-false conspiracies. They did this only hours after an attempted coup against our government, based on the same premises, left five people dead.
The consensus view among the American conservative movement is that the attack was justified in its reasoning, if not its method.
As Eugene Robinson said in his recent Washington Post editorial, “Bipartisanship is nice, but you can’t negotiate with fantasy and lies.”
The problem with pyramids
Projects like the Media Bias Chart all portray the political center “unbiased,” feeding into what cultural theorist Mark Fisher labels as “capitalist realism,” in which the status quo power structure is the only system that can feasibly exist, and even the thought of alternative systems is seen as inherently radical.
In the structure of The Chart, the “center” or “status quo” is portrayed as the most preferable, least problematic option. It is, visually, the top of the pyramid. It is “biased” (and therefore less credible) to hold views outside reinforcement of this status quo.
Within this framing, the Democratic Party represents the left end of the spectrum, and the Republican Party the entirety of the right. However, according to the work of the Manifesto Project, the Democratic Party tracks to the political center, and the Republican Party to the far-right. .
Within this framing, right-wing and left-wing views are both held as equally “extreme,” despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security singled out right-wing extremists as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland”
Mainstream or Utter Garbage?
Another flaw of the balanced, pyramid structure of The Chart is that it fails to take into account the centralization of the media landscape, as described in the Propaganda Model. The corporate monopolizing that we see in the US media, rather than furnishing us with diverse viewpoints across a variety of sources, has collapsed our media ecosystem into a small set of acceptable views, portrayed by dozens of sources that differ only aesthetically. Our media ecosystem, put bluntly, presents an “illusion of choice,” oriented largely to the benefit of a pro-business status quo.
What’s the objective?
Also worth noting is how the “objective, view from nowhere” standard that The Chart reinforces was developed by and for white, cis males, and that enforcing that “neutral” POV can often be fundamentally inequitable..
Consider when a reporter for the City Desk program in Chicago accused Malcolm X of being “personally prejudiced” and incapable of being “academic” in his arguments regarding the Ku Klux Klan, simply because they had burned down his home and murdered his father. Or more recently, when Black journalist Wesley Lowery revealed how he had been “muzzled” by editors at the Washington Post.
In the wake of these events, Lowery has written compellingly on the failures of our current conception of “objectivity” in newsrooms, a conception that The Chart fortifies by design.
The problems of source as shorthand
While the outlet providing an article is certainly an essential consideration when it comes to evaluation, we reject that it is the most important indicator. A media company is not a monolith, but an organization of people.
Divergence from editorial direction is common. When the NYT published Senator Tom Cotton’s opinion piece calling for the military be sent in to control protests, or the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed questioned Dr. Jill Biden’s use of the “Doctor” title, journalists at both organizations spoke out against pieces.
Sources are also divided into different areas, with different specializations and audiences. This makes it very difficult to generalize a source’s credibility. For example, Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue have published excellent political reporting while also drawing eyeballs through listicles and pop culture pieces.
The simple layout of The Chart does not allow for this kind of context or nuance.
What is included
It’s difficult to tell how Ad Fontes selects the media which appear on The Chart. Natural News and others have transitioned on and off The Chart several times. Many sources in Version 7.0’s “green box” are household names, but just beneath them in the “mixed reliability category” The Chart has previously included outlets like Epoch Times, a pro-Trump outlet with ties to the Falun Gong cult and a penchant for spreading Covid-19 conspiracy theories.
Currently occupying the same space, and even outranking established publications like The Nation in terms of credibility, is Quillette, a publication that has promoted racial pseudo-science on multiple occassions.
In her essay Lizard People in the Library, Barbara Fister argues that librarians must educate learners to differentiate between news platforms which serve as watchdogs for society, and outlets which prioritize profits over any kind of social contract. Ad Fontes amplifies outlets like Epoch Times and Quillette through their inclusion, leading the casual observer to assume that, while problematic, these are legitimate news organizations worthy of inclusion in a normal media diet.
Just as harmful as these impacts is how The Chart also reinforces the concept of “news” being exclusively a national affair. This is to the great detriment of local news outlets, which often provide not only high quality information, but information more directly relevant to people’s lives.
This is a real problem, because the death of news at the local level has allowed for the propagation of far-right propaganda outlets in the vacuums created.
Some have argued that The Chart is helpful for students who are new to research and are a ‘blank slate’ when it comes to sources; The Chart gives them guidance as they conduct their research online. But this makes little sense; as a visual source, The Chart can only include a tiny fraction of sites.
Internet searches will bring up stories from thousands of different sources not on The Chart. Local media sources are one example of a source type that is ignored by The Chart’s methodology, but there are even extremely popular information and disinformation sources that don’t show up.
Given the variable nature of the chart’s inclusion of sources, how are readers supposed to interpret a source’s absence in relation to its credibility?
Check your bias
In one of the earliest mainstream media articles about the newly formed Ad Fontes Media, MarketWatch asserted in their headline “How biased is your news source? You probably won’t agree with this chart.”
From the beginning, the biggest flaw in this project has been viewers’ own confirmation bias. Frequent consumers of sources that The Chart claims to be untrustworthy or biased will often dismiss The Chart entirely. Conversely, the centrist consumer who reposts The Chart to their social media page will often ignore the unscientific and haphazard nature of the work.
So what chart should I use instead?
While we have focused our discussion on the Media Bias Chart’s flaws, many of the same critiques apply to other websites that claim to rate media outlets’ biases. Professors and librarians are looking for a ‘silver bullet’ that will help students become more discerning consumers of media. As educators, we must transition away from crutches like these, and instead endorse comprehensive, skill-based evaluation of information sources.
While Nathan does not recommend any methodology in particular, he has found that the Five W’s as framed by Jessica Olin are a helpful tool when training students to read sources critically. The easy recognizability of the framework helps it to stick with students, and promotes a constant and variable interrogation of sources rather than a standardized checklist. He has also regularly talked about the misinformation categories identified by media professor Melissa Zimdars, whose work was popularized around the same time as Otero’s meme. In addition, he feels that information literacy, as a skill designed to create more informed citizens, must be coupled with a comprehensive and rigorous study of the basics of political science and civics.
Candice advocates people use Mike Caulfield’s SIFT method when evaluating a news article, since it emphasizes lateral reading and the need to recontextualize information. While media bias charts try to provide a heuristic that encourages people to trust or distrust a source in isolation, SIFT recognizes that we must view each story within the greater information ecosystem. This is not something that can be done with a meme – and to suggest information literacy can be so simplistic is insulting.