Our Q+A with AllSides CEO John Gable
We caught up with the media bias expert to discuss transparency in the media and the importance of balancing out your newsfeed.
Leading up to the 2020 election, we’re chatting with leading experts about misinformation, censorship, fact-checking, and plenty more.
For the third installment of our interview series, we (virtually) sat down with John Gable, the founder and CEO of AllSides, which uses media bias ratings to provide balanced news and perspectives on issues across the political spectrum. He often writes about bias, news media, polarization, and how technology impacts these things.
Here’s what he had to say.
You guys developed the Media Bias Chart to help increase transparency and help news consumers get the full picture and find the truth. Can you talk a little bit about what goes into the methodology behind the chart?
Sure, so the chart contains just a few of the highlights of our over 800 source ratings. We have patented technology to do this. And we actually have a system where we bring in people from around the nation — a mixture of left, center, right, rural, urban, different ethnic backgrounds. And we have them look at the content and the headlines, without knowing who wrote it, without knowing who the source is. So it’s a blind bias survey, if you will. These people take a look at the content, and they determine if it’s right-leaning or left-leaning. And then we do a cluster analysis to make sure that we’ve balanced everything out correctly to accurately reflect the nation. So what our ratings really do, is they reflect the average subjective judgments of all Americans if they could actually look at the content without knowing who wrote it.
Obviously when we talk about biases, one of the most prevalent ones on the internet is confirmation bias. People seek out content that reaffirms their preexisting beliefs. How do we get people to try to challenge their confirmation biases or at least put them on the back burner? Or can we?
I think the best thing is actually already happening. Kind of like an alcoholic, you can’t get better until you know there’s a problem. America’s kind of bottomed out on the dangers of extreme, tribal, narrow, biased points of view. If you look at the audience, if you look at Americans reading news, there’s been a huge shift in what they want. A number of years ago, Pew Research did a survey showing about 63 percent of Americans preferred news from a source that wasn’t slanted one way or the other. A year ago, they did that same survey, and it jumped up to 78 percent. That was before this election cycle and before this pandemic. We’ve seen a tremendous change in people wanting to have more credible news. They’re rebelling against that extreme bias, that extreme tribalism. But the news media, looking at just what people click on, keep giving them more and more bias, more sensationalized information. That’s not what people want.
Why is it so important that people get to decide for themselves what content they want to consume and whether or not it’s credible?
The goal is to empower people to think for themselves. If they don’t think for themselves, who’s going to do it for them? A lot of the focus in D.C. is based on who gets to decide for people what they should think. That’s a lot of what politics, the media, and think tanks are about, is trying to tell people what to think. And that doesn’t work out so well. You need a combination of experts and novices to solve problems. We need to empower people to be a part of the conversation, to look at the different sides. That’s what’s necessary in order to get better information.
Right now, an extraordinary number of people are fed up with the situation, but they don’t know what to do about it. They need help breaking through that bias, and it’s hard. It takes time.
What our job is, and Our.News is working on this too, is to make it easier and to provide people with the ability to see a different side and really get the whole story.
Transparency has been a hot topic in the media, particularly over the past year, not just as it pertains to bias, but also when it comes to clearly labeling articles by category. The Media Insight Project did a study that showed 4 in 5 journalists thought their employers should better distinguish between news and opinion pieces. Why do you think this is something that even needs to be advocated for in the first place?
It’s extraordinary that something so core to journalistic principles has been thrown out the door. And part of that comes back to the media business model, which has kind of crashed with the internet, and with changes to other non-journalistic sources of information. In response, they’ve gotten desperate for money. So they’ve become more sensationalistic because that’s what drives clicks.
If I were a food producer and I used the same business model that journalists are using for deciding what food to give people, I would base it on instantaneous gratification. In other words, the only food I’d ever offer: Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Now, I actually love Mountain Dew and Cheetos but if that’s all you eat, you’re going to have a terrible stomach ache and your customers would stop coming to your restaurant because every time they do they’d get sick.
That’s what’s happening in news media today. They keep giving us instantaneous gratification, and it feels good for a moment, and then we’re all sick. Now, we’re looking for better restaurants.
Do you think it matters to news publishers what the public thinks about their content?
The newspaper business has just half the amount of people working in it as it did just 11 years ago. It’s been a horrible, devastating business challenge. So when you’re scared, you don’t necessarily make the best decisions. So I think they’re looking at the numbers so closely.
The other problem is that the way information moves today tends to keep people in their own filter bubbles. They only see people they already agree with and they only know people just like them. As a result, we become confidently ignorant. We become much more confident in our point of view and we think that’s the only point of view. What we know from a lot of scientific studies is that when you only see your own point of view and interact with people just like you, you become much more extreme in what you believe and we also become much less tolerant of any person or idea that is different.
That’s happening nationwide, and journalists are just as susceptible to that disease as anyone else. And that’s also a core part of what’s driving the downgrading of quality we see in journalism today.
What are your go-to news sources?
I do think that no one should choose one source, and I know that calls people to do a little more work. But I do caution against choosing one news outlet to think for you. But I think the way to do it is to have good sources from the left, right and center. USA Today is pretty good from the center. Wall Street Journal’s news coverage, every time we do a blind bias survey, they’re the most reliable news. Their news is consistently down the middle, as much as any group we measure. New York Times is strong, left opinion, but it’s well thought out. If you’re looking for strong points of view on the right, The Federalist is a good one. Reason offers a good Libertarian perspective that’s neither left nor right.
It seems like, in recent years, the more left-leaning news outlets have slid further left, and the right-leaning outlets have slid further right. Is this something you guys have tracked over time?
We have seen and measured that shift, on the left and right. But for us, it’s less about how they’re moving and more about how they’re distinguishing between news and opinion, like you brought up earlier, and at AllSides we consciously identify the content by category. So for example, if you look at Fox, overall they’re definitely on the right, but if you pull out just their one-hour news program and if you look at just their news page it’s “lean right” and not “hard right.”
I don’t think bias is bad. I think hidden bias is bad. I actually like the variety of ideas and perspectives out there.
Obviously, tons of people have shared the AllSides Media Bias Chart online, some of them more notable public figures. Last summer, you guys got a share from Ice Cube. What was it like to see someone you maybe had no idea was paying attention to your work, come out and show you guys some love?
It’s really fun, particularly for a guy who’s as big a geek as I am. When somebody cool thinks what you’re doing is cool, it’s kind of an out-of-body experience. But we keep thinking we should spend more time with PR people in Hollywood, because a lot of people in Hollywood really are trying to make things better, and a lot of them do see the insanity of extremes in either direction.
A survey from the Knight Foundation revealed that four in five Americans are concerned misinformation will influence the election. Given that we’re in the home stretch of election season, what can people do to guard themselves and their networks from any last-minute disinformation campaigns?
Immediately look for the opposite point of view on anything you see. We have tools on AllSides that will help you do a balanced search where we automatically give you different perspectives on any topic. Do take that extra step. Recognize that we are the product and we’re what people want, whether you’re a journalist or a business, a politician or a marketer. We are the money that they’re trying to get, so we need to guard ourselves. The only way to do that is to look at the other side seriously.
If you believe something and you can’t make a compelling argument for the opposite side, you probably really don’t know the issue well. That’s the ultimate challenge. If you can do that, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.