This chart will tell you how biased your favorite news source is

Ad Fontes Media wants to educate readers on where to find reliable sources of news and lessen the heat from the political flame wars.

  • Polarized, unreliable news can be dangerous during turbulent times, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The Ad Fontes' Media Bias Chart maps out the biases and reliability of legacy and alternative news organizations.
  • Political bias is one of many we must be wary of when judging the quality of the news we consume.

The New York Times was a failing newspaper before changing its business model to muckraking on Trump. Fox News had to drop its "Fair and Balanced" motto because that's false advertising. CNN should be renamed the "Know-Nothing Network." Info Wars' listeners are freakin' certifiable.

If you've spent any time on social media, or in the inescapable presence of extended family, you've heard someone slagging on the news sources they disagree with. Their main grievance is, of course, how biased and unfair those news sources are when compared to their reliable, fact-based preferences.

While a mere annoyance in that moment, such mindsets have become a widespread social ill. We as a society require a consensus of truth to make sound social decisions, and the news is one of the gatekeepers to the facts required to build those truths.

When news content begins to prioritize opinions and tribalistic tendencies over journalistic integrity, it clouds the entire media landscape with suspicion, deepens political polarization, and allows readers to sidestep unwelcome evidence with alternative narratives.

Such a state is pernicious at the best of times, but in dire times, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the spread of unreliable information can be of fatal concern.

How do we reach a consensus on which sources prioritize facts and which are designed as filter bubbles of confirmation bias and self-righteousness?

Ad Fontes Media's answer: research, analysis, and one interactive chart.

Creating the Media Bias Chart

The extreme bias and partisanship of the 2016 election led Vanessa Otero to create the first Media Bias Chart.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2016, amid chants of "lock her up!" and reprimands of that "basket of deplorables," patent attorney Vanessa Otero decided there was a real problem with how we consume news.

"[W]e have a big problem in our news media landscape: too much junk news. Junk news is like junk food, and just like junk food has caused massive health epidemics in our country, junk news is causing a massive polarization epidemic," Otero writes.

Otero analyzed news sources for bias and reliability, and then charted her results. Her side project became the first version of the Media Bias Chart. In 2018, she founded Ad Fontes Media as a public benefit corporation—naming the company after the Latin phrase meaning, "back to the source." After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Otero gathered additional analysts to perform deeper dives into news content.

Today, her Media Bias Chart has reached version 5.1. Each score is now backed by an analysis of multiple articles, a weighted average of those raw article scores, and multiple analyst rankings from people across the political spectrum. (The Ad Fontes website hosts an in-depth look at its rubric and methodology here.)

"I want to make news consumers smarter and the news media itself better, and those things are both really lofty, but I think it's doable," Otero told Newsy during an interview. "There are folks who, if they had this information, would make better choices as consumers of media first and then citizens."

Triangulating the news landscape

Click on the image to zoom in and get a better view. The Media Bias Chart, version 5.1, charts reliability and bias in about 90 popular news sources.

(Photo: Ad Fontes Media)

The chart splays a cavalcade of news media logos across its grid to form a giant triangle. At the top-middle stands the news sources that are balanced and highly reliable. As we slide down the left and right sides, we fall deeper into the realm of partisanship and mudslinging.

The chart's y-axis measures reliability on a scale of 0–64. According to the Ad Fontes website, a reliability score of 24 or higher is considered acceptable, while a score of 32 or higher represents good reliability.

The chart's x-axis measures from -42 to 42. Scores closer to zero equate to neutral, balanced views. The more a news organization shows a conservative bent, the more their score pushes right of zero, maxing out at 42. The more a news organization shows a progressive bent, the more their score pushes left of zero, maxing out at -42.

For those fuming that progressive news is measured by "negative" numbers while the right is seen as "positive," chill! That's just how x-axes work.

Who is the fairest (and most balanced) of them all?

John Daniszewski of Associated Press and Kirill Kleymenov interview Vladimir Putin

John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards of the Associated Press, and Kirill Kleymenov interview Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

(Photo: President of Russia's official website)

According to the Media Bias Chart, the most balanced news sources are Associated Press and Reuters. The Associated Press earned a reliability score of 51.98 and a bias score of -1.06; Reuters earned a reliability score of 51.64 and a bias score of -0.95.

As the website notes, these scores don't mean that every article is a piece of investigative journalism. But on average, these two sources produce quality, fact-based journalism.

The least reliable sources of news are the National Enquirer and World Truth.TV, the latter of which proudly proclaims itself alternative news based on the "sacred knowledge." They sport a reliability score of 9.65 and 7.41 respectively, though neither is particularly biased.

The most biased conservative sources were found to be the Gateway Pundit and InfoWars, scoring 28.55 and 31.05 respectively. Conversely, the most biased progressive sources were the Palmer Report and Wonkette, scoring -29.37 and -31.15.

Here's a quick rundown of a few noteworthy news sources. Bias scores are on the left, reliability on the right:

  • The New York Times – (-4.01, 47.5)
  • The Wall Street Journal – (1.89, 48.33)
  • The Washington Post – (-4.18, 43.73)
  • CNN – (-5.69, 42.22)
  • Fox News Channel – (24.56, 23.16)
  • Vox – (-8.75, 41.97)
  • NPR – (-2.73, 49.9)
  • Mother Jones – (-13.92, 37.31)
  • The Daily Wire – (16.35, 24.39)

You can check out more scores at the interactive Media Bias Chart here. Expect scores to shift in future versions as more content is analyzed and more analysts can weigh in.

Making better news choices

The Media Bias Chart provides an easy way to digest an otherwise complex media landscape. The website also rates weekly articles, so readers can examine how different news sources spin the major story of the day.

However, it is only one tool that looks toward a particular bias spectrum in our media. There are more. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt identifies six forms of media bias. In addition to the right and left political biases, he showcases the centrist bias (both sides must always be equal in blame regardless of the circumstances), the affluent bias (national journalist tend to be more affluent than the average), the newness bias (events that are new seem more important), and social biases (sexism, racism, ageism, and so on).

To detect bias and skewed information, the media watch group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) recommends asking following questions of news content and the sources containing them:

  • Who are the sources?
  • Is there a lack of diversity?
  • From whose point of view is the news reported?
  • Are there double standards?
  • Do stereotypes skew coverage?
  • What are the unchallenged assumptions?
  • Is the language loaded?
  • Is there a lack of context?
  • Do the headlines and stories match?
  • Are stories on important issues featured prominently?

We can't afford to digest news with passive acceptance. Like Otero, we need to develop personal methodologies for analyzing a source's reliability and distrust for biases, especially those that make us feel that twinge of personal satisfaction.

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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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