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10. Evaluating Web Sites: Clues to Bias

Probably all sites 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 amounts to a persuasive advertisement for something near and dear 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 is more persuasive than informative.

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 web sites is our own biases. Sometimes the things that look most correct to us are the ones that play to our own biases. Remember:

 

"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

 

Click for clues about bias:

1. Click around the site and look for evidence that the site exhibits more or less bias. The table here identifies some clues. 

Vested Interest

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 their job if the topic that the web site promotes gets decided one way or another.

vs.

There is no overt evidence that the author will benefit from whichever way the topic is decided.

Imperative Language
There are many strongly worded assertions. There are a lot of exclamation points.

vs.

Statements are made without strong emphasis and without provocative twists. There aren't many exclamation points.

Evidence
There is little evidence and documentation presented, just assertions that seem intended to persuade by themselves.

vs.

Statements are supported by evidence and documentation.

Citing Sources
The site refers to earlier news or documents but does not link to the news report or document itself.

vs.

The site links to any earlier news or documents it refers to.

Multiple Viewpoints
Only one version of the truth is presented about controversial issues.

vs.

Both pro and con viewpoints are provided about controversial issues.

Coverage
Compared to what you've found on other sites 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).

vs.

This site'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.

2. Ask yourself whether you have an open mind about the subject of a web site's content. Question any strong pro or con reactions you have to a site, consciously trying to maintain an open mind as you examine the site.

 

Make the inference: Consider the clues. Then decide the extent to which bias you detected on the site is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent to which this factor contributes to the site being a suitable on a scale like this one.

You'll want to make a note of the web site's grade for bias so you can combine it later with the grades you give the other factors.

Examples:

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