Biases aren’t wholly bad, and the flip side of a bias is a useful heuristic. Instead of thinking about biases and eliminating them, think about applying the right heuristics to the right sorts of problems, and organizing your environment in such a way that the heuristics don’t get hacked.
— Memorizing List of Cognitive Biases Won’t Help, Mike Caulfield
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 following sources are great examples of embedding references for all data shared. Take a look and see if you can spot 2 or 3 in each!
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.
This section includes material from the source chapter, “Degree of Bias” by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries, found in Choosing and Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, licensed as CC-BY 4.0, as well as the following:
Adeline, Stephanie, et al. “Tracking Coronavirus Around the U.S.: See How Your State Is Doing.” National Public Radio, 7 June 2021.
Wendelboa, Aaron M., et al. “Is There Less Opioid Abuse in States Where Marijuana Has Been Decriminalized?” Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Reviews, 28 October 2019.
Original material by book author Calantha Tillotson.