One of the largest U.S. national publishers, USA Today provides in-depth coverage of everything from technology, economy, and politics to celebrity gossip and entertainment news. The newspaper broke with its tradition of not endorsing presidential candidates in 2016 by issuing an “anti-endorsement” for Donald Trump, a move they linked to an editorial obligation to their late founder. In the years since, bias has become an ever more important topic as people seek credible, unbiased news. With this background, The Factual wanted to ask two questions, how factual is USA Today and how biased is it?

How Does The Factual Rate News Sources? 

The Factual analyzes more than 10,000 news stories every day to help readers find the most informative, least-biased articles. Our news-rating algorithm scores each article along four metrics: (1) cited sources and quotes, (2) publication history, (3) writing tone, and (4) author expertise. These scores combine in a weighted average we call a Factual Grade, which ranges from 0–100%. (See our How It Works page to learn more about our algorithm.)

For this study, we analyzed ~1,000 articles each from 240 news sources. The average Factual Grade for the entire dataset was 62.5%. Based on these averages, we can compare the performance of news sites across the media ecosystem. The entire dataset can be explored in greater detail here.

How Factual Is USA Today?

USA Today scored an average Factual Grade of 68.4%, placing it in the 78th percentile of our dataset.

USA Today pursues a “straight news” strategy to cover news topics, producing high-quality journalism in the process. However, they also produce articles covering a broad range of entertainment topics which typically involve fewer sources and sensationalized headlines. This helps explain the news site’s moderate overall scores.

Like any news source, scores for articles from USA Today varied widely. For example, some articles from scored 80% or above, while others scored below 60%.

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How Opinionated Is USA Today?

One of the metrics The Factual uses is the Writing Tone, which measures how opinionated the writing is in an article. For this metric, the algorithm looks for signs of subjective commentary (e.g., first person pronouns and unnecessary adverbs), as well as the emotional nature of selected words, and sees how prevalent they are for a given length of text. More neutral text receives higher ratings, with “0” being the most opinionated and “1” being the most neutral.

USA Today had an average Writing Tone score of 0.67, placing it in the 65th percentile in our dataset. This suggests that news articles from the site tend toward using neutral language in much of their reporting. However, opinionated language is also often present. This dynamic can be seen through neutral headlines, such as “Abortion ‘trigger’ bans to take effect in multiple states this week. What do they change?,” and more opinionated headlines, such as “Flu may be coming back with a vengeance, experts say, and children could be at risk.”

How Biased Is USA Today?

The Factual classifies media organizations by political bias as either Left, Moderate Left, Center, Moderate Right, or Right. This classification is derived from third-party assessments from media bias organizations such as All Sides and Media Bias/Fact Check. Based on this data, The Factual assigns USA Today a Moderate Left bias.

AllSides gives USA Today a “Lean Left” bias based on a comprehensive set of sources, including an editorial review, community feedback (39,462 ratings), a blind survey, independent third-party analysis, and independent research. AllSides has a “high degree of certainty” about this classification due to a series of editorial reviews. These documented USA Today’s tendency to publish material with viewpoint placement, slant, and bias by omission

Media Bias/Fact Check (MBFC) confirms this classification, rating USA Today “Left-Center” based on the newspaper’s editorial positions. “USA Today states they pair editorials with opposing views . . . [but] favored the left through wording and story selection,” according to MBFC. Moreover, USA Today uses emotionally loaded words for its headlines. It still receives a “High” Factual reporting rating thanks to diverse sourcing and its “straight news” approach to non-political topics. It also has a clean fact-check record.

Looking more broadly, USA Today has been the subject of some controversy. For example, Gizmodo documented how USA Today published article-like advertisements for the Netflix show “Sweet Tooth” that were highly misleading, which led to confusion on social media. Other publications owned by Gannet, USA Today’s parent company, have had similar issues

The organization has also faced criticism for stealth editing — making alterations to articles without an explanatory editor’s note showing what was changed and when. Amid the recent battle over voting rights in Georgia, a popular op-ed by Stacey Abrams was stealth edited to relax strong language about the potential to boycott specific businesses over voting rights disputes. Such subtle alterations in articles shakes confidence in the publication, particularly when content can be quickly and quietly altered.

Who Owns USA Today?

Gannet, USA Today’s parent company, owns more than 200 publications. A 2019 merger in the interest of cost savings prompted concerns that the company may experience downsizing given ambitious revenue goals and the historic decline of revenues from print news. The merger met criticism from relevant unions and experts, including concerns about potential downsizing and about how the changes would impact the quality of American journalism

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How to Mitigate Bias

News articles are bound to have bias because all authors have some frame of reference within which they describe a story. Political bias ratings are helpful in understanding this framing. However, it can be more beneficial to know how factual an article is based on quantifiable metrics that can be seen across the media ecosystem, from cited evidence, to author expertise, to the writing tone. This is what The Factual ascertains. 

Reading several, highly rated articles from across the political spectrum helps counter the bias of any news source or story. To have the day’s most factual news stories delivered to your inbox every morning, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Article updated on September 22, 2022 to reflect new data.

Published by Zain Bali

Zain is a researcher, writer, and marketer at The Factual. He is interested in policy, mass media, and politics. Before joining The Factual, he earned a B.S. in public health from Ohio State University. He has worked as a social media manager for a healthcare advocacy group and food science researcher.