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Is The Atlantic Reliable?

By · Sep 7, 2023 · 11 min read

Is The Atlantic Reliable?

Former senior editor at the Atlantic, Yvonne Rolzhausen, wrote that the magazine is “dedicated to accuracy and truth – and therefore to rigorous fact-checking.” As she notes, the Atlantic’s pieces must be right in order to be truly thought-provoking and interesting. Today, this kind of approach to journalism matters more than ever. In 2022, there were only 34% of Americans who had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media, according to a Gallup poll

The Atlantic’s commitment to accuracy has been recognized by Forbes, placing the magazine in 9th place among the Top 10 Journalism Brands in 2017. Although the online portion of the magazine “sometimes hews to clickable headlines,” the Atlantic still “subscribe[s] to American journalism principles of fact-based reporting,” as the article noted.

Despite the Atlantic’s high reputation, the fall of 2020 brought multiple controversies. An article about niche sports and Ivy League-centered parents was retracted by the Atlantic and left with the editor’s note, which accused the writer of lying to the editors and inducing at least one source to lie to the fact-checking department. This instance of doubt regarding the accuracy of Atlantic‘s article and its author’s credibility resulted in filing a $1 million defamation lawsuit against the magazine. Another accusation of the Atlantic’s inaccuracy came from Donald Trump’s Twitter account. The former president wrote that the magazine is making up “a fake story”  to gain some relevance, in response to the Atlantic’s article about how he allegedly insulted the fallen soldiers for getting killed. 

At Biasly, we strive to answer the question of how reliable all media companies are. Let’s find out whether the Atlantic’s editorial standards of accuracy and credibility are properly recognized.

Does Reliability Matter? 

Reliability, in general, refers to how trustworthy or accurate information, or in this case, a news source is. If we consider this definition, it quickly becomes clear why reliability is important in media sources. If we can’t trust the things we read then there isn’t much of a point in continuing to consume content from that source, after all. So how exactly can we gauge the reliability of a news source anyways?

There are several potential measures of reliability to look out for when trying to determine whether a media source is reliable or not. Red flags for an unreliable article can include the presence of wild unsubstantiated claims, facts dependent on other unreliable sources, heavy use of opinionated language, and more. Some indicators of a reliable news source, on the other hand, include things like:

  • Absence of subjective/opinionated language in articles
  • Credible sources cited (e.g., neutral sources, .gov, .edu websites)
  • Facts and statistics backed by multiple relevant outside sources
  • Use of primary sources when possible (e.g., interviews, quotes)
  • Information that remains consistent across news sources

So How Does the Atlantic Fare in its Reliability?

Biasly’s political bias indicator measures news media reliability. Analysts gave the Atlantic the accuracy rating of 70% reliable on Biasly’s meter. Third-party bias rating agencies have a similar result regarding the reliability of the magazine. According to Similarweb, some of the Atlantic’s top competitors are Newsweek and the Economist. Biasly rates their accuracy as 84% reliable and 90% reliable respectively. 

Let’s look into the evidence behind these scores and what you should be aware of as you pursue reliable articles.

The Atlantic’s Accuracy and Reliability in its Non-Opinion News Articles 

Bias and political leanings can seriously impact reporting, which negatively affects reliability. The Atlantic has been known for being accused of liberal bias, especially after Laurene Powell Jobs bought a major stake in the magazine. We can find out if those accusations have any validity by evaluating how accurate the Atlantic’s news articles are, as well as assessing the work of its fact-checking department. Determining the reliability of the magazine’s articles requires us to look for selection and omission bias.

Selection bias is when stories and facts are selected or deselected, often on ideological grounds, to create a narrative in support of the new sources’ ideology. Omission bias, on the other hand, is when different opinions and political views regarding a situation are left out so that the reader is only exposed to the ideological perspective supported by the author. It’s important to keep in mind these two types of biases when trying to assess an article’s level of accuracy.

Biasly rates accuracy by percent, with 1% being the least accurate and 100% being the most accurate. This rating is calculated by evaluating claims with factually-backed reasoning, credible sources, and the number of credible external sources used within an article.  

The Atlantic has an accuracy rating of 70% reliable, as mentioned above. Its other competitor, the Wall Street Journal, was rated as 96% reliable by Biasly. Both news sources share similar reliability scores but differ when it comes to biases, as the Wall Street Journal has a right-leaning bias. 

On Biasly’s website, you can find an entire page dedicated to reliability and accuracy ratings for the Atlantic’s articles. For example, Biasly gave Adam Harris’ “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession” a rating of 71% reliable. The analyst bias score of this article is -39%, which is quite low and often will signal a steeper liberal bias, as found in this article.

As for omission bias, “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession” doesn’t provide a balanced view by exploring potential arguments or justifications for the bills from their sponsors or supporters. Its primary focus is how those bills would harm the discussion about racism, limit freedom of speech and serve as an instrument in culture wars. Adam Harris omits specific examples or evidence of how critical race theory is being taught or implemented in schools, workplaces, or government agencies, which is a central concern for the bills. The only quotes from critics of CRT that were included in the article don’t provide any rationale for banning diversity training. 

For example, from everything that Christofer Rufo told Tucker Carlson about his 3 investigations, whistleblowers’ revelations and questionable training practices, such as forcing employees to write apology letters, the author chose to include how Rufo said that the CRT “was being “weaponized” against Americans.” Other quotes repeatedly convey a message of how the supporters of those bans believe that CRT is “infecting” the cities’ municipal systems and the federal government.  Inadequate representation of criticism towards shortcomings of diversity training or critical race theory demonstrates the omission bias of the article. 

Selection bias is also present in “The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession,” as it heavily relies on quotes from individuals associated with liberal or progressive organizations, such as Leah Cohen from Granite State Progress and Gilles Bissonnette from the ACLU. This selection of sources may skew the narrative towards a particular ideological viewpoint. 

In terms of the number of sources used, Adam Harris relies on the academic work of Harvard Law professors, when describing the origins of CRT and the first people who taught it. 

  • The late Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, who is credited as the father of critical race theory, was mentioned as the originator of the theory in the 1970s.
  • Lani Guinier, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, is mentioned as someone whose nomination sparked debate related to critical race theory. Adam Harris directly references this article

The author also refers to the following sources:

  • Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is quoted in the article discussing the constitutionality of the bills.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire: Gilles Bissonnette, director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, is quoted in the article, expressing concerns about the effects of the bills on free speech and discussions about systemic racism.
  • Granite State Progress: Leah Cohen, press secretary and digital engagement organizer of this liberal nonprofit have a short commentary to the author.  
  • Senator Tim Scott: Senator Tim Scott’s response to President Biden’s joint address to Congress is mentioned in the article, where he denounces critical race theory.
  • Manhattan Institute: Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is featured in the article as a central figure in the conservative interest in critical race theory. His article “Cult programming in Seattle” is quoted to outline the criticism of CRT.

As for the statistics, the article relies on the Atlantic/Leger poll and its main finding that 78% of Americans either haven’t heard of CRT or were unsure if they had. Although the article credibly reports the poll’s insights, their purpose in the text seems to portray the issue as an overblown “base in the culture war,” introduced by Republicans. The conclusion, drawn by the author, which emphasizes the unimportance of the issue to average voters would be considered an accurate interpretation of the poll results, only if it wasn’t for the survey from the Competitive Edge Research. This poll came out less than a week after the Atlantic’s article was published and found that 74% of respondents are “somewhat or strongly opposed” to teaching that “White people are inherently privileged, while Black and other people of color are inherently oppressed.” Unquestionably, Adam Harris couldn’t predict conflicting poll results from a different organization that came out after his article. However, this example shows that interpreting evidence in a biased way negatively impacts the reliability of the article. 

Analysis of Reliability in the Atlantic Opinion Pieces

Opinion-style journalism leaves more room for writers to express their viewpoints, compared to the desired objectivity in general news articles. Although a subjective approach to opinion pieces makes them less reliable, they provide readers with a “new, broadened perspective on a contemporary issue,” according to Massachusetts Daily Collegian. In political journalism, opinion articles often stimulate public discourse by presenting unique analyses and interpretations. 

The reliability of the Atlantic’s opinion pieces has been affected by the tendency to advocate for liberal causes while criticizing or giving cynical interpretations of the motivations behind conservative policies and politicians. A controversy, mentioned above, that involved Donald Trump canceling the trip to the cemetery and allegedly insulting American service members, is one of the many articles that either criticize or ridicule the former president. 

The magazine also received some criticism for its panic-inducing narrative regarding COVID-19. Click-baiting titles of one article after another seemed to occupy the Atlantic’s coverage for months, reinforcing fears and anxieties. This focus on the virus could be one of the factors that allowed the Atlantic to celebrate its paid circulation reaching 830,000, as well as a jump of 280,000 subscribers in 2021. 

Quality of Sources and Facts Used

The Atlantic is generally good at employing academic sources, reliable statistics, and fact-checked external articles, but has a tendency to use them to advocate for positions favorable to the left. Oftentimes, the reliability of the magazine’s work varies throughout its articles. For example, consider the two articles that discuss bans on transgender care for minors: “The Only Way Out of the Child-Gender Culture War” by Helen Lewis and “The War on Trans Kids Is Totally Unconstitutional” by Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr.

A roughly equal representation of the two sides of the debate is present in the first article. Some of the liberal sources Helen Lewis used are ACLU, Houston’s LGBTQ Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Endocrine Society are indirectly referenced to illustrate liberal perspective on the issue. She also quotes Fentrice Driskell, the Florida House’s Democratic leader, and Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health.

As for right-leaning sources, the author refers to The New Zealand Herald, quotes Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas, Leor Sapir, a researcher at Manhattan Institute, and former President Donald Trump. Other sources include an article from Reuters, a commentary from a board member of Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network, and summaries of studies that found the ineffectiveness of hormonal and surgical treatment for gender dysphoria. The author also neutrally describes what steps Western European countries are currently taking in light of these findings. 

Helen Lewis attempts to remain objective after presenting all the evidence from doctors and European research institutions: 

“Just as we lack proof that current treatments are categorically “lifesaving,” we do not have evidence that they constitute “child abuse.”’

The quotes used by the author are relatively short with no discrimination in length between liberal and conservative sources. Although left-leaning sources were mentioned more often, references to medical research create a balance in representation. It is also important to note that the author does not offer her own interpretations of any evidence or research findings and simply reports them. 

The second article has many differences and mainly serves to research and use Constitution-based reasons on why bans on transgender care for minors “are a bad policy.” This focus of the article can be explained by the fact that its author is Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr., Director of Faculty Research at the University of Alabama School of Law. Although his listed areas of expertise are First Amendment and constitutional law, the Atlantic’s fact-checking department considers him qualified enough to make these claims:

“The laws—such as the one Arkansas just passed and those that more than a dozen other states, including Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas, are actively considering—will certainly harm transgender children, denying them medical care that they need and causing them psychological pain. That should be reason enough to oppose these laws.”

He cites research that supports his claims about minors not regretting the irreversible changes. However, it is important to note that even in 2021, the scientific world was starting to split regarding their verdict about transitions. For example, there is a study that came 5 months after the article was published, suggesting that “[d]etransitioning might be more frequent than previously reported.” In other words, “The War on Trans Kids Is Totally Unconstitutional” contains confirmation bias, since the author chose to cherry-pick the evidence that supports his claim. Although seemingly unlikely, it is still possible that at the time of writing this article, there was no research to fact-check the author’s claims. However, this scenario would mean that the Atlantic neglected to update the article and inform readers about this correction. 

Despite the fact that the author uses credible sources, mainly Supreme Court cases, the factuality of his article is negatively impacted by his unchecked assumptions and unquestioned beliefs in the benefits of gender-affirming care. 

“Denying access to a medically necessary therapy compromises both the health and happiness of an individual.”

Additionally, this article shares a common trait with many other pieces of the Atlantic: factual evidence is interpreted by the author to assume and explain the GOP’s ill intentions. For example, the author attributes this ban to fear and dislike, hence transphobia, of Republican-led state legislature: 

“Arkansas would need a reason other than mere fear or dislike of transgender children as a basis for denying them, and only them, lawful access to medical care.”

Other sources, used by Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr. are news articles from CNN, NPR News, AP News, and USA Today. As mentioned above, the sources used in the article, primarily legal experts, court cases, and news reports are credible and relevant to the discussion. However, it’s important to note that these sources are employed to construct a one-sided narrative, focusing on the author’s perspective and arguments without providing a comprehensive view of all relevant viewpoints on the issue.

Selection and Omission Bias 

We noted earlier that certain articles from the Atlantic demonstrate a reliability problem by sufficiently representing only one side of the debate, usually the one that is favorable to the left-leaning audience. In the article called “Deleting the Right to Record the Police,” the author uses extreme cases of police misconduct, such as the killing of a 12-year-old boy, to further the message that Arizona law is enforcing censorship to hide future cases. To be more specific, the author offers this interpretation of why the law was created:

 “there are those who think the problem is not the abuse of authority by law enforcement, but the existence of video documenting such abuses.”

The law in question focuses on prohibiting people from making video recordings of police activity within eight feet of the activity. Ensuring a buffer zone between the bystanders and law enforcement seems to be the purpose of this legislation since the subject of police contact is still allowed to record the encounter (if he or she is not interfering with lawful police actions like being handcuffed or searched).

State Representative John Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor, wrote an opinion piece to clarify the intention and meaning behind the new law:

“I agreed to run this bill because there are groups hostile to the police that follow them around to videotape police incidents, and they get dangerously close to potentially violent encounters. The Tucson police officers who asked me to run this bill said that in their area some of these people videotape from 1 to 2 feet behind them, even when they’re arresting people. 

Getting very close to police officers in tense situations is a dangerous practice that can end in tragedy.

Police officers have no way of knowing whether the person approaching is an innocent bystander or an accomplice of the person they’re arresting who might assault them. Consequently, officers become distracted and while turning away from the subject of the encounter, the officers could be assaulted by that subject or that subject could discard evidence or even escape.”

Adam Serwer, the author, immediately dismisses the official explanation for the creation of the bill, claiming instead that: 

“That rationale for the bill echoed the most common falsehood invoked by police attempting to cover up misconduct: that they feared for their safety. The same general theme has been advanced by many police-advocacy organizations and their supporters, who argue, in essence, that the Constitution ceases to exist the moment a police officer feels unsafe.” 

Omission bias occurs in the article, as the only quote in support of the bill was refuted by the author in the passage above. Throughout the article, the author emphasizes the importance of being able to record the police with smartphones, citing the cases of misconduct against the protesters. He also omits the fact that body cameras are still required to be used by police officers in Arizona. 

The reliability of the article is undermined by biases, both in what is selected and omitted. The author builds the narrative that the real purpose of the bill is to allow police officers to unjustly handle protesters and perpetrate misconduct without being recorded by the public.

So is the Atlantic Reliable?

The Atlantic is one of the most prestigious magazines. It is committed to using reliable sources and overall citing factual information. However, instances of interpreting the evidence to suit liberal causes, omission, and selection biases, and some controversies make it safe to conclude that the accuracy of the Atlantic’s pieces varies from article to article. The more you study what criteria constitute a reliable article, the easier it will be for you to identify how credible sources are and whether the author omits something or cherry-picks evidence. 

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