Part of Lesson Plan: Personal and Media Bias
Activity Overview / Details
Ask: Why should we check the bias of information on a web page or other media source?
Question: Would you trust information unsupported by facts or logical reasoning? A biased author may not pay attention to all the facts or develop a logical argument to support his or her opinions.
Bias is when a statement reflects a partiality, preference, or prejudice for or against a person, object, or idea. Much of what you read and hear expresses a bias. Bias is when a writer or speaker uses a selection of facts, choice of words, and the quality and tone of description, to convey a particular feeling or attitude. Its purpose is to convey a certain attitude or point of view toward the subject. As you read or listen to biased materials, keep the following questions in mind:
- What facts has the author omitted?
- What additional information is necessary to understand the issue?
- What specific words create a positive or negative impression about the topic?
- What impression would I have if different words had been used?
Biased information is often directed at changing your mind, how you think about something. Being aware of bias and knowing how to identify, analyze, and assimilate biased information properly is an important 21st century skill. It puts you in charge of how you think instead of the print and media world.
Ask: What are some indicators of bias on a web page?
- The language of the document is often extreme; statements have all or nothing connotations.
- The argument appeals more to the emotions than to logic.
- Things are worded with the intent to oversimplify or over generalize.
- The author wishes to present a limited view of the topic.
Ask: Would you expect bias in media that is dedicated to selling you something? Or media that is dedicated to controversial topics?
Questions to keep in mind as you seek indicators of bias:
- What is the author's political point of view?
- What does the author stand to gain?
- Who is paying for this message to get to you?
Does the author present alternate
points of view?
- If so, are those views presented objectively, or with scorn
How To Recognize Bias
Life 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 what 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
Bias has tell-tale signs. Several of the common forms of bias include:
A strong point of view that may or may not include criticism of other perspectives
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)
Strong, even unnecessary, language and use of words
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: http://www.conservapedia.com/ 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.
A specific or unique sense of style, presentation or content
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.
Have students find a political article online and read the article to themselves. Instruct them that, 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 the link: and related: command on Google to get a list of pages that link to the author's page (see the Google Guide Quick Reference for help)
- If it's a blog or online news source, check out other readers' comments
Use fact-checking to see if the information is accurate, exists elsewhere on the Internet and who else uses it. Have students review the Fact Checking process and try the Bad Apple Evaluation Games at the bootom of the tutorial. S ee: http://21cif.com/tutorials/help/fact-checking.html Also see attached: How to Use Fact Checking.
Don't believe everything you see or read. If the information seems biased or surprising, be skeptical.
For additional Help for understanding and recognizing bias:
Tutorials that help students practice detecting bias (have students try one or more of these online tutorials either individually or in pairs):
Additional Reference Resources
How to Detect Bias on the Internet (Informal, but informative examples of different types of bias and distortions)