How to Detect a Biased Source?

LilWabbit

Active Member
This thread is to share tips and advice on how to glean truth from moderately biased sources, and to detect seriously biased sources that should be viewed very critically. The working assumption is that no source is perfectly unbiased.

Here are some generic pointers I have found personally useful:

If the source -- or its sponsors -- gain politically, financially, ideologically, personally or emotionally by making you believe in what they report, they are to be read very critically. No matter how professional or smart their arguments and 'facts' seem on the surface. One must first independently establish their lack of bias and absence of interfering private interests before naively believing in them and quoting them flippantly to others. Most people unfortunately don't make such an independent and intelligent assessment -- also known as 'source criticism'.

Sometimes we even hold onto highly biased sources because they justify our own personal beliefs and theories, whether about the end times, the world or smaller matters. Not because they are unbiased and impartially concerned with truth, supported by objective evidence.

If your source or its sponsors actively tell you to mistrust all other sources and question everyone else's integrity but theirs, they are demonstrably uncomfortable in their own 'truth'. They feel easily threatened. This should already raise alarms. Truth doesn't need to desperately shut your eyes from the 'lies spun by others'. This is because truth stands out from error by being compelling enough without any hype, and without warning you, in alarm, of those whose views contrast yours.

Truth is so strong as to even encourage you to investigate all alternative 'truths'. By investigating all the 'truths' out there you will only be confirmed in the compelling nature of your truth, if it truly is truth. But if it starts to crack, crumble and make you doubtful, maybe it wasn't the whole truth and nothing but the truth to start with.
 

econ41

Senior Member
A good idea LilWabbit. Just a couple of preliminary comments - and from my focus which is probably narrower than some other members.

My involvement in on-line discussion arose out of a comment from a colleague who was a broad based conspiracy theorist. I'm a retired engineer qualified in both Civil and Military Engineering. In mid 2007 a colleague asked for my thoughts on the controlled demolition of the WTC Twin Towers. And I laughed before I realised he was serious... for reasons of small town politics my comments to him had to be full on professional... That was 2007. It led to me "finding" on-line forums, getting involved in discussions and I've since "wandered" across a wide range of topics. And I've formed some opinions relevant to the topic of this thread. Including the "meta-process" aspect. Excuse the lengthy introduction.

So try these two as debate topic starters:

Point #1. Some truths stand in their own right. Independent of "sources" which are third party opinion BUT reliant on sources that are accepted fact. From my perspective "accepted fact" includes the laws of physics, the "rules" of logic and the accepted protocols of determining fact AKA either the protocols of "scientific method" or of "[para] legal process". So within the limited scope of applied physics debate most of the elements of debate are technical issues of true - false binary fact. So a question in the form of "was beam 123 overloaded" is determinable as technical fact independent of third party sources even of "expert" sources. Competing and conflicting over "sources" has been a big feature of technical debate e.g. WTC collapse debate when the actual issues of fact can stand alone without reliance on third party sources.

Contrast with:
Point #2. Many - probably most - of the discussions we see in the political and behavioural arenas do not readily isolate to simple single issues which resolve to binary yes no decisions. Most complex topics are a multi-layer overlay of "grey area" issues - "analogue" not "binary" - e.g. could be 80% probability but even the 80% is contentious and almost certainly a matter of divergent opinion. Recent and ongoing debate of COVID epidemiology one example - layer upon layer of probability based reasoning. Some of the probabilities quantified or quantifiable. Many not.

So those two contrasting scenarios should offer material for discussion. Maybe if only for someone asking me "What are you trying to say?" ;)
 
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Mendel

Senior Member.
First of all, there's this post if you want to find out the bias of a traditional media source that lists some sites that can give you a heads-up quickly: https://www.metabunk.org/threads/media-bias.11554/

Secondly, you'll notice that the good bias charts score in TWO dimensions, which is political bias vs. factuality.

One way of dealing with bias is separating opinion from fact, i.e. figure out what actually happened, and go from there. A site is good if it lets you do that, i.e. either gives original sources, or quotes you can google, or enough technical terms you can google and find corroborating accounts from other outlets that are more trustworthy.

The other problem with bias is selective reporting: even a 100% factually reliable source will show bias via the editorial decisions which facts to report more prominently and which facts to leave unreported. On a good site, that's not done for manipulation, but to tailor the content (and the effort/expense spent on that content) to their audience.

In summary, "how to detect a biased source" is the wrong question. Every source is biased. What you really need to do is how to become aware of the bias, which is not hard once you think about it, and what precautions to take as a result.

The MediaWise program boils this down to 3 small steps (and they have also short youtube clips tailored to older or younger audiences):
  1. Who's behind the information?
  2. What's the evidence?
  3. What do other sources say?
You can find more background on this program at https://www.metabunk.org/threads/mediawise-isthislegit-program.10568/ . I've presented two of their short tutorial videos on the "Media Bias" thread I linked above, and you can find all 4 tutorials on their youtube channel at : https://m.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4Q3mxb2_k-I9WTNMzLtxeqONXK3tmCBh
.
 
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econ41

Senior Member
On a good site, that's not done for manipulation, but to tailor the content (and the effort/expense spent on that content) to their audience.
A similar issue of "tailor the content to their audience" arises when presenting contentious public infrastructure programs to a community. For example changes or extensions to systems which have environmental impacts... in my experience dams involved in flood managemnt and sewerage outlet schemes. ( The two ends of the water industry. ;) )

The challenge is to present information that is accurate but meaningful to the audience. When the audience is often a mix of general community members affected by the infrastructure. Plus activists interested in the envrionment. Simplifying the technical issues for one audience leaves the presenter wide open to misunderstanding or accusations of misrepresentation by other parts of the audience.
The MediaWise program boils this down to 3 small steps (and they have also short youtube clips tailored to older or younger audiences):
.....
You can find more background on this program at https://www.metabunk.org/threads/mediawise-isthislegit-program.10568/ .
Thanks for the info and links.
 

FatPhil

Active Member
If the source -- or its sponsors -- gain politically, financially, ideologically, personally or emotionally by making you believe in what they report, they are to be read very critically.
I prefer the opposite view - would they lose anything were they to push the opposite of what they're curently pushing. All people in the 4th estate gain by just pushing what they're pushing, that's just business. An hypothetical unbiased source would happily carry an update that contradicts what they've previously carried were there evidence enough to support a reversage.
 

Mendel

Senior Member.
An hypothetical unbiased source would happily carry an update that contradicts what they've previously carried were there evidence enough to support a reversage.
That's not how it works.

For example, many outlets will carry stories about climate change, from both sides, i.e. "Arctic Sea Ice Minimum at Second Lowest on Record" vs. "Antarctic sea ice growing at record rate". The editorial bias is in how these pieces are balanced, i.e. in which side is given more prominence, and how the stories are framed. A pro-change news source would accompany each climate change denial story with a rebuttal by some other expert, while an anti-change source would do the opposite (and obviously both sources would omit minor news that doesn't fit their agenda). There's also the rare item that explains the apparent contradiction, like "Why Is Antarctica’s Sea Ice Growing While the Arctic Melts? Scientists Have an Answer".


So, the presence of contradicting information is not a sign of no bias, and a shift in position is not black&white, but can come gradually as a shift in balance.
 
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deirdre

Senior Member.
  • While books* may be considered "tools", that is not what is meant by "Tools" in this forum. A tool is a chart, a calculator, a map etc.
*"books" meaning long reads.



If your source or its sponsors actively tell you to mistrust all other sources and question everyone else's integrity but theirs,
and how often does that happen? Not often enough to be helpful in the context of this thread topic. maybe you meant "tell you to mistrust other sources and question the integrity of those with opposing views"?

Truth doesn't need to desperately shut your eyes from the 'lies spun by others'.
ah, a classic liberal. Freedom of speech rocks (yes i know that isnt what Freedom of Speech technically means). Although i gotta say, it is more peaceful not having to hear Trump blather on constantly on social media.

This is because truth stands out from error by being compelling enough without any hype,
This is bunk. Truth is boring.
 

Meat5000

Member
My Baghdad battery thread is a good example of bias. I am an electrical/electronics engineer so my standpoint on the issue is one sided whether I like it or not. I can claim to not be biased but ultimately my way of thinking gives way to the fact.
 

LilWabbit

Active Member
The MediaWise program boils this down to 3 small steps (and they have also short youtube clips tailored to older or younger audiences):
  1. Who's behind the information?
  2. What's the evidence?
  3. What do other sources say?

Good stuff.

In terms of the objectivity of a source, I've come across roughly the following levels of bias. In the scale below, I'm not attempting precision but approximation. The reality is more of a continuum and less of a discrete scale. By 'source' herein is meant anything ranging from a media outlet, a think tank, a research institution, a government agency, a person, a non-profit organization or a corporation to a political, ideological and religious organization.

Sources:

(1) To whom commitment to integrity, objectivity, factuality, accuracy and impartiality is genuinely a matter of pride (not just a slogan) and represents the foundational principle governing their work. Political or ideological leanings of the authors or sponsors are consciously and resolutely kept from interfering with their work.

(2) Who believe in integrity, objectivity, factuality, accuracy and impartiality while having more or less obvious blindspots due to a particular political or ideological leaning. Sometimes they demonstrate deliberate partiality but mostly seek to report facts, although often edited with a slant.

(3) Who publicly state that they uphold integrity, objectivity, factuality, accuracy and impartiality -- and pursue an appearance of impartiality and professionalism in their knowledge-products -- while their work is predominantly political or ideological in nature. Sometimes they report competently on neutral topics and occasionally demonstrate an absence of political or ideological bias.

(4) Who produce blatant propaganda or who openly disseminate political or ideological beliefs.

Over the decades of my earthly existence sources that fall under 1 have always been few and far between. However, today, they seem almost non-existent.
 
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Woolery

Member
This thread is to share tips and advice on how to glean truth from moderately biased sources, and to detect seriously biased sources that should be viewed very critically.
At the risk of being obvious, I’ve got a tip that’s still worth mentioning to young readers in particular:

Be suspicious of summarizations, particularly in the forms of headlines and the leads of news articles.

Truth can be complicated, nuanced and reliant on context—a headline cannot. It’s brevity prohibits useful explanation. It’s primarily designed to be compact and to attract attention, not convey meaning. Read deeper.

The lead paragraph or “nut graf” is often just a slightly more expansive summary of the article than the headline, and suffers from many of the same deficiencies. If the lead itself is specific and contains a verifiable citation, great. But this is uncommon.

The degree to which the story is readily provable is largely dependent on the quality and relevance of its citations in later grafs. If the story continues to be light in this regard and heavy on the writer’s opinion/speculation, consult a second source.

In general, if you skim the news, you’re going to be particularly vulnerable to bias. This probably also applies to most short-form digital media.
 
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