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Evaluating Bias


How To Recognize Bias

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conflicting road signsLife can be confusing. To make things simpler, all of us make choices. We decide some things are good and other things are bad. Of course, not everyone will agree with our choices. Those who agree with us tend to share our perspective, our point of view. We tend to automatically believe those who share our point of view.

Perspective is not a bad thing. A unique point of view can be refreshing and help others see things in new ways. However our perspective becomes biased when it prevents us from objectively considering different points of view. Beware ideas that are promoted as the only right way to believe. Appealing to bias with propaganda leads to blind prejudice.

The Internet, print and other forms of media are full of bias in all its forms. Before you believe everything you see or hear, it helps to be able to detect bias and evaluate whether it is worth paying attention to or not.

Signs of Bias

Like the picture above, bias has tell-tale signs. Several of the common forms of bias include:

Information can be easily distorted or made to show only one perspective. For example, this blog from a 2007 incident at a wedding in Gaza:

"Hamas kills innocent Palestinians because they were singing."

This is a strong point of view about strong content: murder. Other perspectives are missing, including ones based on reports that, while Hamas apparently broke up a wedding party because several Fatah leaders were in attendance. No one was killed. (Reuters, Jerusalem Post)

Information that includes strong sentiments often makes use of strong language or words chosen for a specific impact. For example:

"A woman named Doris stood to ask the president [Obama] whether it was a "wise decision to add more taxes to us with the health care" package. "We are over-taxed as it is," Doris said bluntly. The response she got was simply silly, confusing liberal clap-trap. " Source: 9 April 2010.

The language here is likely to have different effects depending on an individual's personal bias. If you have a liberal bias, this account reads like an attack on Obama. If you have a conservative bias, this account may sound pretty reasonable. If you are neither liberal nor conservative, the snippet may come across as an argument intended to provoke a response. "Simply silly" and "liberal clap-trap" are emotion-laden words chosen on purpose.

Information with a unique perspective or slant is moderately biased. It doesn't go so far as to be prejudicial or to become propaganda, but the author's point of view is neither balanced nor objective. For example, this passage from Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus:

"How You Can Help: Participate in tree octopus awareness marches. You can demonstrate their plight during the march by having your friends dress up as tree octopuses while you attack them in a lumber jack costume."

The idea of parading around in costumes to depict the plight of the Tree Octopus seems more light-hearted than serious. Here the content is surprising. It just could be a joke.

Detecting Biasphilosopher and elephant

As you read, pay attention to words, pictures and emotions, but don't lose sight of the big picture.

Speak the words outloud. Who do you imagine would be comfortable saying these words? Someone speaking fairly? Someone with a cause to promote? If the words or reasoning sounds odd or feels uncomfortable coming from your mouth, they could be biased.

Watch for words like always, never, obviously and words that 'jump out at you.' A balanced point of view gives readers options. Biased points of view tend to have only one option: the one being presented. Biased points of view may include words that seem out of place.

Pay attention to images. Biased arguments are often accompanied by pictures, charts, tables, etc. that support only one conclusion. Remember, a picture may be worth a thousand words. Is the picture real? Is it taken out of context? Is the information in the chart accurate?

Be on the outlook for the author's purpose. Ask: why did the author write this? What point does the author want to make? Is the author trying to persuade readers to agree with a specific point of view?

Three things you can do if you suspect bias

See who agrees or disagrees with the author.

Use fact-checking to see if the information is accurate, exists elsewhere on the Internet and who else uses it.

Don't believe everything you see or read. If the information seems biased or surprising, be skeptical.

Additional Help for understanding and recognizing bias