Monday, October 15, 2012

What Does It Mean To Be Biased?

This is something that I have been pondering for a while when it comes to discussing news, media and the like with people of my generation especially. Of course our generation is quite sullen when it comes to these things, and it is very difficult to get them to admit they like anything in the media without this very important modifier: "well, of course Show X is completely biased, but I kinda like it because.....". In many cases I did not agree, but I realized that while many of them will say that regardless of the actual evidence (wouldn't want to be accused of being naive, hellz no), in some cases we are operating with different definitions of the word biased.

The word is used in many different contexts, so it is a difficult one to pin down. For example, in a sports game, a ref that is "biased" is one that has a particular preference for one team, subconsciously or otherwise, and will therefore be "harder" on one than the other. This meaning that if one team commits a foul the ref will call it, but if the other preferred team commits the exact same offence they do not get called on it. I think this is a fairly straightforward example, and one that can be evaluated relatively objectively. 

Another context in which the word is used is in the law: a biased judge, for example. In this case the word takes on a slightly different meaning, as it is well known that judges have certain political ideologies and ideals, therefore two judges may rule quite differently on the same case. This however is something that is known before hand and therefore not considered "biased": a judge becomes biased (or rather, not impartial) if he or she has a vested interest in the outcome of the case, or if one of the lawyers is his/her spouse etc. A judge can also have a racial or gender bias, being harsher on one more than another for the same crime/whatever. However, in this case, simply having a personal leaning, preference or ideology is not enough to call bias, there has to be a far more tangible source.

This, however, seems not to be the case in the media. I have begun to notice with this whole "everything, everyone, every single modicum of the news media is biased!!!" argument is based on the personal ideology of the newscaster. The idea is that regardless of how hard they try, even if it is not an opinion piece, their personal beliefs will subconsciously "leak" out, tainting their broadcast, and thus making everything that comes out of their mouths biased. Therefore, if we're watching actual opinion news like The Young Turks, we must be absolutely 100% sure we communicate in no uncertain terms that we KNOW it is TOTALLY biased, before we can ever admit to liking and watching it. This is where I tend to disagree.

I do not think that TYT is biased the way that FOX News is biased. The main difference is that, while TYT will loudly state their opinion(s) on a subject, I have not found them to purpously misrepresent facts in order to fit their ideology, and the mistakes they have made they have come forward to correct. FOX News, on the other hand, routinely selectively edits their news stories, twisting the facts and misrepresenting them in order to support a preconceived idea, rather than presenting all the facts and then drawing the necessary conclusions. 

This, to me, is what it means to be "biased" in the media, and therefore in some ways I do not think that all media outlets are biased at all. If anything, I find that many media outlets in the US are so terrified of being called biased by the right wing that they misrepresent a loony far-right perspective as if it had the same basis in truth as the other side, thereby misrepresenting the facts and being biased in favor of the right wing.

So what do I do in these cases of conflicting definitions? To the dictionary!

Oxford English Dictionary:

biased: unfairly prejudiced for or against someone or something: we will not tolerate this biased media coverage

Ouch, that's a little vague isn't it? To be "unfairly prejudiced" can be taken in extremely broad or extremely narrow terms. Let's try a couple of others:


biased: showing an unreasonable like or dislike for a person based on personal opinions
The newspapers gave a very biased report of the meeting.
I think she's beautiful but then I'm biased since she's my daughter

bias:  a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice

Aiaiai, can we get any more different in our definitions?! I am surprised at how few entries there are for this word as well, given that these dictionaries tend to waffle on for ages (remember the post on cults? yeesh) and this word can be quite versatile. At the end of the day though, I suppose what you consider to be biased is really up to you.

It all comes down to the "level" of bias you're willing to handle from a media outlet. While I do think there is some truth to the "subconscious leakage" hypothesis, I do not think that any such leakage would matter to me when drawing my own conclusions from facts. These sorts of things have to be rigorously controlled in an experimental setting (for example, having someone who does not know which are the "treatment" and "control" groups collecting the data, as in a clinical trial) or a criminal setting (for example not having someone accidentally influencing a witness into picking someone out of a lineup). In a news story, on the other hand, I do not think that subconscious or loud outspoken "bias" or opinion will sway me. 

So long as I have all the facts laid out in front of me I can draw my own conclusions, regardless of what the person laying them out for me thinks. The fact that their opinions wont change my mind is what makes me call shows like TYT not biased. On the other hand, if I am only given a selected subset of the facts presented in such a way to make them seem like something they are not, that is what could really lead me to draw the wrong conclusion, and therefore that is what I will call being biased in the media.

What are your thoughts on the problem, or lack of a problem, of bias in the media?


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