We tend to look for easy answers and clear-cut solutions. Unfortunately, when it comes to “net neutrality” there might not be any. Even more unfortunately, some media outlets suggest there are.
The media coverage we analyzed about the FCC plan to change net neutrality regulations was slanted, which means that outlets primarily promoted information and opinions that supported a single perspective on the issue. Three outlets favored the perspective that net neutrality is vital and should be protected by law, and the other mostly suggested that neutrality is stifling growth and it’s not government’s place to enforce it.
You can see these biases reflected in the slant ratings. The Guardian received the worst slant rating at 64 percent, meaning it was the most biased, and Fox News received the best at 39 percent, meaning it was relatively more balanced.
What’s the problem?It’s limiting for media to focus on just one side of the issue. Even if you wind up fully agreeing with one perspective, wouldn’t you prefer to better understand why not everyone agrees? Understanding multiple perspectives and why people see an issue differently can broaden our scope, help clarify our thinking and even help us better craft our arguments. So when media slants towards one perspective (e.g. for or against neutrality), it doesn’t help us think critically.
How does media promote the slant?1. Using sensational language: outlets use language that sensationalizes the importance of the 2015 regulations; then, they oversimplify what the regulations provided for, portraying them as a guarantee for people to access the internet. Together, this implies that undoing the regulations would be bad because it would undo important protections.
For instance, The New York Times’ lead sentence says the FCC said it planned to “dismantle landmark regulations that ensure equal access to the internet.” The Guardian calls them “sweeping plans” to “reverse Obama-era rules designed to protect open internet.” (Read more about what neutrality laws do here.)
2. Favoring arguments on one side of the issue. In part this is done by outlets including more criticism than support for the FCC plan, or vice versa. For instance, we found that WIRED included 32 statements that directly or indirectly suggest net neutrality is necessary, and only 4 statements that include arguments against it.
3. Implications. Even in cases where an article includes multiple perspectives, outlets can use words that imply an emphasis on one particular perspective. For instance, Fox News describes the existing regulations as preventing ISPs “from favoring their own digital services over their rivals — for instance, by blocking or slowing certain content.” This on its own might sound beneficial to consumers. Then, Fox writes: “But Pai says the [rules] discourage the Internet service providers from making investments in their network to provide better and faster online access.” The “but” de-emphasizes the first sentence, and could imply Pai’s opinion is more significant.
Now that we’ve explained how the bias works, you might want to learn more about the issue of net neutrality itself — explained in a data-based and balanced way. If so, check out “Net neutrality: What is it and why do people care?”
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News