When you're researching a topic, you often want "just the facts," so that you can draw your own conclusions about what you're reading. Scholarly articles are a good choice, since they are often written simply to report and discuss original research findings. Or, web articles published by educational organizations, intended to teach or inform, can be helpful, too.
However, plenty of people (and organizations) publish with other intentions. They may want to advocate for a cause or a political issue. They may want to sell a product. It doesn't necessarily mean that you can't use their information. In fact, if you want to find opposing viewpoints or to gather examples of marketing or political strategies, etc. these kinds of publications might be just what you need. But, when you need unbiased information, they could lead you astray. You need to be able to spot bias.
What are some signs that you're looking at a biased or subjective source?
- If its purpose is to persuade, endorse, promote, market, sell or entertain. If you're not sure, check the organization/publisher/magazine website for an "about" or "mission" link. If the site has motives beyond simply teaching or informing, then you need to be on guard for bias and inaccuracies in any information that you find there.
- If it presents a one-sided view of a controversial issue, or the author dwells on his or her opinion without giving equal time to opposing viewpoints.
- If it uses negative language to describe opposing viewpoints, products, candidates, etc.
How can you tell if a source is objective or unbiased?
- If it's scholarly, it's probably a safe bet. Objectivity is prized in scholarly literature...particularly in peer review.
- It remains neutral on controversial issues, giving equal time to each point of view. An unbiased author will try to fairly represent conflicting ideas, without trying to convince you that one is right.
- If its purpose is to teach or inform or disseminate research, it's likely relatively safe from bias.
- On an organization's website, look for an "about" or "mission" link.
- In an ebook, look for an introduction, or go to the publisher's website.
- For an article, go to the journal, magazine or newspaper's website and look for an "about" link.
Explore these online bias-checking tools:
- AllSides: "AllSides exposes bias and provides multiple angles on the same story so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant."
- Media Bias/Fact Check: "We are the most comprehensive media bias resource on the internet. There are currently 900+ media sources listed in our database and growing every day. Don’t be fooled by Fake News sources."
- FactCheck.org: We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.
See also: What is cognitive bias, and how can it affect my research?
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