What do you think, can a writer or journalist ever offer something truly unbiased?
With all the news about fake news, many people are struggling to trust even traditionally trusted news sources. As a busy mom of two, my main news source is public radio. I listen to drown out fights over Barbie dolls going on in the back seat of my car, and hear some grown up conversation. I also listen in hopes of forming some kind of understanding about what is happening in my area and around the world. I grew up listening to public radio, and always assumed that “public” is a synonym for unbiased. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not writing to criticize any public radio channel or personality. I think public programming is about as close as you can get to the ideal of unbiased reporting, and I truly enjoy the content I listen to. I guess I’m just a little shocked to discover how naive I am.
Why did I not realize that bias is inherently human? It seems that the heated political climate surrounding the election in U.S.A. caused journalists here to collectively finally lose their cool. Their emotions, like many media consumers’ emotions just took over! They lost the will to be neutral in what they said because they were just plain angry. This situation has got me thinking, is it even possible for media to be unbiased, completely objective? What is bias? As a consumer, how can I choose the right media sources in this emotionally charged climate? As a writer, can I present my view to many audiences without offending?
What is bias?
According to vocabulary.com bias is a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation.
I propose that without realizing it, we are all biased. Granted, bias is often used with a negative connotation, but I don’t believe it always is negative. While I lived outside my home country, I learned to question the stream of information forming my viewpoint. I realized that people believe a certain set of collective traditional wisdom without even questioning it, based on what a majority of people in their area believe. I guess that’s part of what we call culture, and what causes culture shock when we move somewhere new. Those differences fascinate me.
Culture and bias . . .
For example, what do you think of sitting in a drafty room? In Latvia and surrounding countries, collective wisdom says that if you sit in a draft you will catch a cold, or possibly even something worse. This belief is so strong that even on the hottest summer days no one wants to open a window in a crowded bus. I know, it may sound strange to some of you. We all know the same facts about germs causing colds, but somehow this collective view about drafts is so strong, that people in Latvia believe both. They go to the doctor when they get sick and gladly take a dose of antibiotics to help them get over whatever bug is going around. But they do not want to risk sitting in a draft. Americans, on the other hand, have taken sanitizing to the Nth degree under the assumption that if bacteria cause illness, then we must kill as many bacteria as possible. Many of us are obsessed with antibacterial soap, despite current evidence that it doesn’t reduce our chance of catching colds any more than using regular soap. (https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.htm)
But the really crazy thing is, I change my behavior, depending on where I am despite what I believe. As a resident of Latvia, I didn’t open a window when I normally would have. Not because I started believing drafts cause sickness, but because I knew it would make the people around me uncomfortable and upset. When I sneeze or cough in public in the U.S., I tend to apply antibacterial hand sanitizer, mostly to reassure those around me that I care about their health.
I’m using this subject as an example of differences in culture affecting an individual person’s beliefs or habits. It is not intended to offend anyone who uses antibacterial products or avoids drafts. But do you see what I mean? A certain set of collective “wisdom” is believed without question, because “everybody knows” it to be true. And the prevailing belief may affect your life whether you subscribe to that idea or not. So when I traveled, I learned for the first time what some of my biases really are. I say some, because I don’t believe I’ve discovered them all. I believe it may take a lifetime of traveling, learning from, and sharing with other people to find them and decide which ones I want to keep, and which ones I should get rid of.
Media and bias . . .
Members of the media are also products of their environment. I have come to the conclusion that the content I listened to on public radio in the state where I grew up was tinted by the culture there all along. I didn’t notice it because that culture was all I knew. Now I have gained different cultural perspectives, and I’m discovering this thing we call bias seems to be everywhere!
Our writing is a product of what has been going into our minds and how we filter that information through our set of previous assessments and beliefs. This is why I believe it’s impossible as humans to be truly unbiased. Being part of a culture, a collective understanding of ourselves and the world, is part of being a human.
How important is “the sell”?
Another factor that affects a writer’s ability to offer unbiased content is that writing is also a product meant to “sell” to a particular audience. To read our writing, a person has to identify with it’s point of view and be interested in the slant we are offering. At times this need for audience can lead to some damaging practices such as using false information, sensationalism, or resorting to gimmicks. It certainly influences choice of topic. I’ve noticed that parenting magazines rarely feature pieces about the dangers of too much screen time for kids anymore, not because it’s become less dangerous, but because we parents are kind of sick of hearing about it. The topic has gotten old and tired even though it’s still relevant.
Bias within ourselves . . .
Those of you who follow developments in the field of psychology may be thinking about the cognitive biases right about now. Psychologists have pinpointed certain areas where our opinions and reality tend to differ. These are the cognitive biases. One of them, confirmation bias, is the tendency to believe the information that confirms what we currently think. The newest discovery is the SPOT effect, which stands for Spontaneous Preference For Our Theories. I learned about this newest cognitive bias and the research that revealed it this article in The Big Think, posted by Robby Berman on March 6th.(http://bigthink.com/robby-berman/my-theory-is-true-if-i-do-say-so-myself) So apparently we are wired to stick to our own point of view, sometimes ignoring logic or evidence. I have to admit that learning about these built-in biases has made me start mistrusting myself a little.
In order to avoid letting your own biases become too extreme or too narrow, I recommend listening to an opposing viewpoint from time to time. Watch a news media channel you normally don’t, read a different newspaper, look for different social media feeds, befriend someone new. Try not to immediately break in, either mentally or verbally when they say something you don’t entirely agree with. Let them have their say completely. Of course we have to set certain standards for what goes into our mind, and filter everything through those. But don’t judge. Respect the other person’s right to an opinion. Really try to understand why they think the way they do. You may be surprised how alike we all are in the end.
If being biased is inherently human, can it be inherently wrong? Isn’t it part of the beauty and diversity of the human family? Having an opinion is not wrong. Instead of letting our bias fuel fear and hate, I think we should couple it with respect for each person’s God-given free will. One of the best pieces of advice I got when adapting to life in a different culture was, don’t try to be one of them, you never can be, try to behave as a guest should. As their guest you must respect their views and ways. But to respect does not necessarily mean to adopt them as your own. Similarly, when you read someone else’s work, you are a guest in their mind. Let their work inform and educate you, but do not feel obligated to take on their beliefs as your own or disprove them if you disagree.
Is there any writing that is completely trustworthy?
How can you tell if something you’re reading can be believed? Often it helps to look at the source. How transparent are they about their sources? Do they have a vested interest in promoting a certain view? Ultimately, I believe the best measure of trustworthiness is this; does it agree with what the Creator of humankind and this universe has revealed in the Bible? That is the information filter I use. Like laws of physics which are self evident, Bible principles and narratives speak to all humans whatever our culture and background. Isn’t that as close to unbiased as we can get?