2005-10-11

"How can you determine a source's biases?"

What are a source's biases?  And why is it important to consider a source's biases? 

In November 2006, just days before the national mid-term elections, the magazine Vanity Fair issued a press release suggesting that several leading neoconservative thinkers - David Frum, Michael Ledeen, Richard Perle, and others - had renounced their earlier beliefs about Iraq and the Middle East.  But according to the neoconservatives, the release grossly distorted and misrepresented their views, and some expressed regret that they had granted the interviews at all:  in the words of Frank Gaffney, "None of us who responded candidly on the basis of such promises to thoughtful questions posed by reporter David Rose would likely have done so had the magazine’s true and nakedly partisan purpose been revealed."  More at the post Neocons Blast Vanity Fair.




Suppose you are the reader, reading a magazine - or a book, or a newspaper, or a page on the internet.  How do you determine the source's biases?

I don't think there's any simple answer, and I'm not sure it's the kind of question you can really find the answer to by typing it into a search engine.  But I'll share my own thoughts on it.  I addressed the problem of media (and source) bias in an earlier post, "Poison Pill:  The Media Today".  I quoted a New York Times editorial by Patrick Healy and a post by Neo-Neocon tracing the use of anonymous sources.  The media's problem, I argued, was largely created by its own reliance on apocryphal sources - potentially biased, and anonymous, informants whose reliability and accountability are doubtful.  As a first step toward correcting the problem, I echoed Neo's suggestion that
If the MSM really wanted to clean up their act, they might follow these sensible guidelines, devised by prominent journalists in a 2003 Poynter report:

• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.

• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.

• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.

• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.

• The source must have first-hand knowledge.

• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.

Now to the question at hand.  Journalists are here being exhorted to "disclose to readers the source's potential biases".  How would a journalist, or a layperson, make such an assessment?  Well, I think it's mostly commonsense, but I'll throw a few ideas out there:
What is the source's ideological orientation?  What are the person's political sympathies, their party affiliation, etc?  This is not to say that people can't be objective or critical about a movement they belong to - but the potential for bias is certainly there.

What are the source's financial interests?  I think this one is a no-brainer, but a person who owns a lot of stock in XYZ Corporation is going to have an incentive to promote pro-XYZ legislation and contracts.  In the case of the MSM, we all know that "bad news sells".

Debts and favors.  Is the source looking for a payoff down the road?  If I go on record saying nice things about Candidate A, maybe I am hoping to get appointed to a nice comfy job if A wins the election.

The medium is the message.  News stories go through news networks, broadcast networks, and publishers.  Books go through publishing houses.  In other words, somebody has to provide the materials for the message to be communicated.  Somewhere, a network executive makes decisions about what gets on the air and what doesn't.  Somewhere, an editor or publisher decides what gets printed and what doesn't.  So if you're reading a book you have to think about not only the author's background and point of view, but also the publisher's orientation:  for example, they might publish mostly liberal books or mostly conservative books.  Knowing something about the background of a publisher or a broadcast network can help give you an idea of what to expect.

What are the source's own experiences?  How might those experiences be relevant, and how might they affect the source's perceptions?  First-hand knowledge of any issue is always helpful; on the other hand, a person might have had an experience that was atypical or unrepresentative.  A soldier on the front lines is going to have a very vivid, detailed, and specific recollection of a battle.  The general in a command bunker may not see the battle up close, but he will have information on the "big picture" of troop strengths, enemy positions, strategic decisions, and other things that the soldier will not know, and may not be allowed to know.  The soldier's memory may be distorted by trauma, confusion, fear, or shame (of a real or imagined failiing on the battlefield); the general may ignore or suppress key information, perhaps with his career in mind.  Both perspectives are valuable, both have their limitations.

Psychological factors.  There are basic psychological factors that operate in all of us to one degree or another.  Resistance to change is one; Neo has written extensively and insightfully on the human reluctance to change familiar patterns of thought.  There is a need for approval of others; there is also a need for a sense of autonomy and a belief that we determine our own destiny.  And of course we all like to be thought knowledgeable, which is why we are often tempted to speak more than we actually know.

The centrally-managed and -edited traditional media (including radio, TV, print periodicals, and books) have nothing to fear from the internet ... provided they do not contribute to their own irrelevance by ignoring it.

The internet is anarchical, and therefore makes great demands on the individual user in terms of critical thinking skills. How do we know to trust a site? We compare information from multiple sources, listen to different analyses, learn to weed out irrelevant input and compare the picture with what we know from our own previous experience.

With the traditional media, this is all delegated to the editor, publisher, producer, or university. Often we have to do this, because the material is specialized or technical in nature, or because individual contributors don't have the credibility to reliably provide the information we need.

But centralized media can serve their own agendas at the expense of accuracy. That's where the supremely democratic world of blogging comes in.

Traditional media still play a valuable role. But they risk abdicating this role if they fail to recognize the democratizing effects of electronic communications.

Why do we believe what we believe? How do we decide what is true, and what is important? Consider the role of the following factors, and feel free to add others:
· internal consistency (details of the narrative agree with each other)
· external consistency (details of the narrative agree with information previously verified)
· insider details (information available only to an authentic source)
· dialog and dissent (narrative welcomes questions and challenges; fosters better understanding among divergent opinions)
· awareness of objections (narrative recognizes legitimate counter-arguments and seeks to refute them)
· nuance (recognition that a proposition may hold true in general and still admit of exceptions)
· the human voice (an intangible quality that may include a distinctive personality, awareness of ambivalence, self-analysis and self-criticism)

Finally, what does biased writing look like?  Bias isn't necessarily bad, but you need to be aware of it and, if necessary, allow for it.  Yahoo offers this:
Check for the tone of the publication - pick out opinion statements and check the publication's references (are all of the references from the same author or does the publication offer a variety?). What other articles has the author written - the topics of these may help determine her/his bias.

Does the author present both sides of the argument/topic? If not, which side is presented more often? What is the point s/he is trying to make? Ask yourself these questions and you should be on the right track!
That sums up the main points:  variety of sources, obvious rhetorical slant, agenda.  Going a little deeper, I'll offer the following ideas:

* Look for "snarl words" versus "purr words" - words that mean the same thing but sound bad or good.
* See if you can tell what kind of overall picture, or "narrative", the writer is trying to present.
* Sometimes an article will seem to present both sides, but will use better arguments to represent one side, and weaker arguments for the other, so that one side sounds more convincing; this is a kind of implicit bias.
* Sometimes people will use bogus arguments (called "red herrings" or "straw men") to evade questions they don't have answers for; these are examples of fallacies or bad logic.  Studying the types of fallacies can help you see when somebody is trying to pull a fast one on you; you can find out more about logical fallacies here, here, or here
Another common form of potential bias is the use of "weasel words" - words or phrases that make a statement appear factual but really undercut the precision of the statement.  They're called "weasel words" because they allow the writer to wiggle out of being pinned down to a specific statement that can be proved or disproved.  Wikipedia's style manual has an excellent section on weasel words:
Words and short phrases that make a statement difficult or impossible to prove or disprove:
  • Some humans practice cannibalism. (True, but useless and misrepresentative)
  • Many humans practice cannibalism. (“many” could well be two, three, ten, or even five billion)
    • Throughout human history, there have been many individuals with three arms. (to illustrate.)
  • Most scientists believe that there is truth
    • "Most" can mean any amount over 50% but short of 100%
    • A "scientist" could be anyone with any knowledge of science
    • The statement gives no necessary contextual data:
      • How, when and by whom were the individual beliefs counted
      • Whether the statement concerns all published scientists, or all
        those presently alive, or only those who are qualified in the given
        scientific field
    • The meaning of "truth" varies
  • "More and more", "more than ever", "an increasing number"
  • "Possibly", "may", "could", "perhaps" and the like
  • It is believed that... Anyone could believe anything so it is very important to know who believes that, and why?
  • It remains to be seen... Pointless, since it usually introduces an unverifiable statement.
The following examples often qualify for weasel words by vaguely attributing a statement to no source in particular:
  • "According to some (reports, studies, rumors, sources…) …"
  • "Actually, Allegedly, Apparently, Arguably, Clearly, Plainly, Obviously, Undoubtedly, Supposedly ..."
  • "(Contrary, as opposed) to (many, most, popular, ...) ..."
  • "(Correctly, Justly, Properly, ...) or not, ..."
  • "Could it be that..."
  • "(Critics, detractors, fans, experts, many people, scholars, historians, ...) contend/say that ..."
  • "It (could be, should be, may be, has been, is) (argued, speculated, remembered, …) …"
  • "(Mainstream, serious, the majority of, a small group of ...)
    (scholars, scientists, researchers, experts, scientific community...)
    ..."
  • "It has been proven that…"
  • "Research has shown..."
  • Personifications like "Science says ..." or "Experience has proven..."
  • "There has been criticism that ..."
  • "It turns out..."'
In an earlier post at Dreams Into Lightning, I complained about the use of vague modifiers in the media: 
Have you ever noticed how often they use vague quantifiers like "some"
and "many", especially when they're talking about public opinion? But
of course you have - Dreams Into Lightning readers are a smart bunch.
So you've already figured out that that's an easy way for the
"journalist" to introduce his or her own opinion into a story, without
having to defend a more stringent assertion, e.g. the claim that said
opinions represent a majority (which would require the word "most").
Now go take another look at Wikipedia's list - better yet, print it out! - and spend some time looking for weasel words in your favorite media source.   I bet you'll find a lot of them.  (How many is "a lot"?  Well, try it and find out for yourself!)

Make a game of it:  print out a copy of this post, and go through your local newspaper with a pen or a highlighter.   Look for anonymous sources, or people who might have an incentive to be partial, or examples of journalists possibly putting their own opinions into the mouths of the ubiquitous "some people".  Look for snarl words, purr words, and weasel words.  Try to spot logical fallacies.  Check for internal consistency, external consistency, and awareness of objections.  Ask yourself which analyses come from people who know what they're talking about - those who have first-hand knowledge of the relevant "facts on the ground" and who are prepared to respond to opposing arguments - and which ones are unsupported opinions from people with their own agenda. 
I hope you have found this post helpful.  But the most important thing in determining a source's biases is to do your own thinking!  And that's important for students, too - so if you are a student, please take the time to come up with your own answers to this question.  Remember, your instructor can use a search engine just as easily as you can.


Related. On Scott Thomas Beauchamp and source biases.