How Reading 'Biased' Opinions Can Help You Make Sense of the Election
Personal perspectives on the issues that matter can bring context to complicated topics.by Gretchen Brown
Think back to the early days of the pandemic in the U.S.
Reports of rising infection rates felt pretty overwhelming to read. It was hard to draw any meaning from it all.
But it was perspectives from scientists and public health officials that helped give it all context. How worried to be, how to be safe and feel as safe as possible.
"Problems are complicated. Policy is complicated. It helps to have somebody super knowledgeable give their analysis on what is happening," said Stephanie Edgerly, an associate professor of journalism and integrated marketing communications at the Medill School at Northwestern University.
A lot of media literacy education is focused on telling the difference between news and commentary. Many Americans have trouble with that, as evidenced by a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, which asked Americans to distinguish between five factual and five opinion statements.
"A majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set," researchers Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Nami Sumida write.
"But this result is only a little better than random guesses."
Survey results like that are concerning. Edgerly said it's important to understand the difference between news and commentary so you can contextualize what you're reading.
"But I also worry that lost in that movement is the idea that opinion and reading opinionated statements or commentary or analysis can be really helpful to people," she said.
This doesn't just apply to the pandemic. As the U.S. draws nearer to the 2020 election, reading analysis and commentary can help you make meaning out of all the political news out there.
Personal perspectives can help you interpret an event
One of the earliest articles that helped me realize how serious the pandemic was for folks deemed "essential" was a May opinion piece from Rina Cummings, a Buzzfeed contributor who works at the Amazon JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island.
She wrote about her fear of catching the coronavirus while working in a crowded warehouse that already wasn't great for her personal health, and the extra methods she was taking to stay safe — methods she definitely wasn't being paid for.
"A robot will write me up if I am late," Cummings writes.
"It doesn't care whether I had my lunch or not. It doesn't care if I am coughing, or if I faint at my station, or if someone else sneezes on me. They just count the rate of how many packages I sort."
There's a reason history museum exhibits tend to display personal stories from real people who lived back then, rather than telling everything with a sweeping, curatorial voice.
"Personal stories help humanize a human experience," said Bill Convery, director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society.
"And allow people to draw connections to their own experience."
Like news, it's easy to think of history as this straightforward thing, without bias. But like any information, it really isn't straightforward at all — even if we agree on all the facts.
"The interpretation of history, the meaning of history is very subjective," Convery said.
"It depends very much on your perspective and your experience and your values."
Personal stories, then, are intentional — they can help us navigate and interpret what we're learning. That's the case with history, and that's the case with news — famously called "the first rough draft of history."
Be an active news consumer
Reading Cummings' story put me inside her mind in a way a straightforward news article about illness rates in warehouses would not have.
And it would be the same if I were reading an opinion article from a business owner about the economic impacts of the virus. I'm not a business owner, but reading a business owner's perspective helps me look at the situation in a different way.
This doesn't mean you need to endorse every single opinion piece you read. It's important to do your own analysis of each perspective.
"Who is the original author of this post? Why am I seeing it? Why is it cycling through Twitter now? What is the intention of the author? What would somebody who disagrees with this position say about this and why?" Edgerly said.
"Those are the types of critical thinking skills we want people to be engaging in."
Websites like allsides.com can help you read a swath of editorial pieces from right, left and centrist perspectives, and its editorial bias chart places media organizations on a spectrum, often with separate ratings for news and opinion/editorial content.
Chances are, reading a bunch of different perspectives won't drastically change your own core political values.
"But what we can see is, one article or a couple of articles that you're exposed to might change how important you think the topic is, or it might change your attitudes about being engaged," Edgerly said.
Maybe it will encourage you to go out and get registered to vote, or to donate money to a campaign. Small, but meaningful changes add up, so it's worth it to be engaged.
What happens when perspectives are left out
Opinion pieces are an example of what we call conscious bias, where the writer is taking an explicit stance or point of view.
That's opposed to unconscious bias, where an individual might have an unfair prejudice against a person or group of people, and are either not aware or not upfront about it.
The Minnesota Historical Society, like many historians, is grappling with what it means to take strong stances in its museums.
Last year, the historical society added the words "at Bdote" to its Historic Fort Snelling museum, a Dakota phrase meaning "where two waters come together." The word has long been used by the Dakota people for the land the former military base sits on.
Immediately, Republican state senators in Minnesota introduced a measure to cut millions of dollars of funding from the museum, calling the inclusion of Dakota language at the military fort "revisionist history."
But Convery said leaving some perspectives out would be doing a disservice. And pretending that the historical society was ever neutral wouldn't be correct.
Places like the Minnesota Historical Society were initially established by white settlers who wanted their story — that of settlement and conquest — to be the overarching story.
That doesn't mean it's the only story.
"We're always looking at the past with fresh perspectives and with fresh eyes and listening to new voices and learning new evidence and changing our values as well," he said.
You're allowed to take breaks
Reading a bunch of different perspectives will help you make sense of what you're reading, but it won't necessarily help you with news fatigue — which is something a lot of folks are experiencing.
In February, a Pew Research poll found that two-thirds of Americans felt worn out by the amount of news there is. Between COVID-19 and the upcoming election, chances are, that feeling hasn't gotten any better.
Some of it is driven by "doomscrolling," this idea that it's easy to keep scrolling through bad news all night instead of, God forbid, getting some sleep.
For that, Edgerly said, small breaks from news — say, a week without Twitter — can help you feel refreshed. And it won't be so much that you won't be uninformed on the big stuff.
"Oftentimes, as long as it's temporary, I've found it actually works to keep people mobilized," she said.
"You don't want someone to completely check out, but if it's taking a little break because it's becoming too much and then you jump back in, I think that's sort of a normal practice."