Degree of Bias
Most of us have biases, and we can easily fool ourselves if we don’t make a conscious effort to keep our minds open to new information. Psychologists have shown over and over again that humans naturally tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe, even if the information isn’t very reliable. And humans also naturally tend to reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if the information is solid. These predilections are powerful. Unless we make an active effort to listen to all sides we can become trapped into believing something that isn’t so, and won’t even know it.
— A Process for Avoiding Deception, Annenberg Classroom
Probably all sources exhibit some bias, simply because it’s impossible for their authors to avoid letting their life experience and education have an effect on their decisions about what is relevant to put on the site and what to say about it.
But that kind of unavoidable bias is very different from a wholesale effort to shape the message so the site (or other source) amounts to a persuasive advertisement for something important to the author.
Even if the effort is not as strong as a wholesale effort, authors can find many—sometimes subtle—ways to shape communication until it loses its integrity. Such communication is too persuasive, meaning the author has sacrificed its value as information in order to persuade.
While sifting through all the web messages for the ones that suit your purpose, you’ll have to pay attention to both what’s on the sites and in your own mind.
That’s because one of the things that gets in the way of identifying evidence of bias on websites is our own biases. Sometimes the things that look most correct to us are the ones that play to our own biases.
Clues About Bias
Review the website or other source and look for evidence that the site exhibits more or less bias. The factors below provide some clues.
|Unbiased: This source’s information is not drastically different from coverage of the topic elsewhere. Information and opinion about the topic don’t seem to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t seem as though information has been shaped to fit.||Biased: Compared to what you’ve found in other sources covering the same topic, this content seems to omit a lot of information about the topic, emphasize vastly different aspects of it, and/or contain stereotypes or overly simplified information. Everything seems to fit the site’s theme, even though you know there are various ways to look at the issue(s).|
|Unbiased: The source links to any earlier news or documents it refers to.||Biased: The source refers to earlier news or documents, but does not link to the news report or document itself.|
|Unbiased: Statements are supported by evidence and documentation.||Biased: There is little evidence and documentation presented, just assertions that seem intended to persuade by themselves.|
|Unbiased: There is no overt evidence that the author will benefit from whichever way the topic is decided.||Biased: The author seems to have a “vested interest” in the topic. For instance, if the site asks for contributions, the author probably will benefit if contributions are made. Or, perhaps the author may get to continue his or her job if the topic that the website promotes gets decided in a particular way.|
|Unbiased: Statements are made without strong emphasis and without provocative twists. There aren’t many exclamation points.||Biased: There are many strongly worded assertions. There are a lot of exclamation points.|
|Unbiased: Both pro and con viewpoints are provided about controversial issues.||Biased: Only one version of the truth is presented about controversial issues.|
- The Cigarette Papers – Sources of information are documented for each chapter.
- The U.S. Immigration Debate – Shows where it gets its facts; the Council on Foreign Relations is nonpartisan.
- White Poison: The Horrors of Milk – Claims are not supported by documentation.
Making the Inference
Consider the clues. Then decide the extent that the bias you detected on the source is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent that this factor contributes to the site being suitable on a scale like this one:
- A – Very Acceptable
- B – Good, but could be better
- C – OK in a pinch
- D – Marginal
- F – Unacceptable
You’ll want to make a note of the source’s grade for bias so you can combine it later with the grades you give the other factors.