New website helps viewers see how news is skewed

With 60 percent of Americans saying they do not trust mainstream media to fully, accurately or fairly report the news, Colleen Bradford Krantz launched skewednewstutor.com, a project that she hopes will help the public identify why a news story seems biased.

Still in its early stages, the project launched last week and targets high school, middle school and college students, Bradford Krantz told Poynter by phone.

“Teachers have told us that these are the groups who are really bad at critical news viewing,” she said. “But it’s not just limited to young viewers. A lot of people think that most journalists are out to slant news.”

The site focuses on video for now. “That’s what young people are using more and more,” Bradford Krantz said.

The project compares three versions of a news story: One neutral news report followed by two deliberately slanted versions. One of the two slanted versions uses pop-up balloons to show how seemingly unimportant changes — in background music, in how a source is identified — can affect the message.

Even changes in tone of voice and the use of certain phrases can demonstrate bias, Bradford Krantz said. In the skewed versions of the current video collection posted on YouTube, users see how changes in camera angles even affect what viewers perceive.

For example, a story about animal housing shows how a camera angle of a less crowded shot can lead to a positive emotional connection to the story, while a more crowded shot or one featuring a sick cow instead of a healthy one can lead to a negative feeling. Similarly, a bright yellow background may lead viewers to perceive a news report positively, while a gray, gloomy background can make a story feel negative. A more ominous tone of voice, or a narration backed by moody music, can make a story seem negative, compared to a brighter tone of voice and livelier music.

A former reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Des Moines Register as well as a documentary filmmaker, Bradford Krantz used to argue that much of the public’s claims of bias were exaggerated or tied to misunderstanding how newsrooms work. While careful journalists outnumber the careless ones, she now acknowledges that more and more news sources provide a mix of news and opinion without labeling the reports as commentary.

The skewed news tutorial also trains viewers on how to call into newsrooms to convey their concerns. Good news managers will listen, Bradford Krantz said.

The project contains a tip sheet that journalists can use to identify triggers, such as upbringing, that may influence how they report or write about a topic. This part of the project also asks journalists how they plan to overcome possible influences that may skew their reports.

“This might be controversial,” Bradford Krantz explains. “Backgrounds can be a positive thing, but they can also be problematic when it comes to who journalists choose to be in a story, for example. What I tell people about the Journalism Bias Sheet is that it provides transparency that will be a reassurance to the public if nothing else.”

In addition to posting videos every few months, Bradford Krantz plans to develop a mobile app.

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