How the media present stories goes far beyond word choice and story selection. Often, news outlets express bias through page layout.
When it comes to printed news, the front page trumps all—especially the front page above the fold. This is the part of the paper that contains the headlines and the color pictures; it’s the part of the paper that’s put on display on the sides of city streets. On any given day, more people see the front page of a newspaper than any other page. The stories that make it to the front page above the fold are the ones the newspaper editors feel the public would—or should—find most important.
The same is true of web pages. The home pages of websites like CNN.com, ABCnews.com, and CBSnews.com are designed to highlight some stories at the expense of others. This isn’t wrong: news outlets must prioritize the news, simply because there’s so much of it out there. What is wrong is when news outlets prioritize news in a biased or agenda-driven way meant to mislead or distract news consumers from information that conflicts with the media narrative.
Media bias in layout goes hand in hand with media bias in story choice. The two are inextricably linked. Even if a news outlet covers a story that conflicts with that outlet’s agenda, and covers it in an unbiased way, it doesn’t matter if the story is not placed in such a way that it is also easily found. The media control the narrative not just by controlling which stories are told, but also by controlling how easy it is to find those stories: the stories easiest to see are the ones that will be forefront in the mind of the public.
A news outlet could potentially argue that it is not biased, and as evidence use stories that conflict with that outlet’s agenda. However, the mere presence of such a story does not preclude bias: an informed media consumer must take into account the prominence of such stories as well. How difficult are such stories to find? How difficult are such stories to find, in comparison to similar stories that actively promote the outlet’s agenda? Sometimes bias doesn’t lie merely in story choice: sometimes it lies in story promotion as well. And page layout both in print and online affects the prominence of any story.