Bias ‘is a term used to described a tendency or preference towards a particular perspective, ideology or result, especially when the tendency interferes with the ability to be impartial, unprejudiced, or objective’ (Wikipedia, 2009).
In other words when considering if there is bias, look for the following:
- the purpose of the information,
- the coverage of the information, and
- the language used.
What is the purpose of the information?
Bear in mind that all information has a purpose, whether that is to persuade, inform and entice. Some information is published by authors or organisations to advocate a particular point of view. Be aware that this viewpoint may influence the content of the material. Publications from these organisations tend to reflect the views of their members and are less likely to be objective.
For example, company websites can be very useful for gaining access to annual reports and will often give you a lot of information about the company that posted the site but will not inform you of alternative sources. The company will give you their viewpoint but you will need to balance this against alternative sources and other opinions.
Non profit organisations and non governmental organisations (NGOs) should offer you a more neutral viewpoint and lead you to further reliable information.
- Some organisations may require you to subscribe to their website before you can access their material. Be aware that such organisations may be promoting a particular point of view, as in the case of a commercial company.
- It is important to know what the purpose of an organisation is so you can make an informed decision as to whether the information on their website will be reliable and useful.
Personal websites can be very useful but you need to be very careful to investigate who the author is and be aware of personal bias.
Has information been intentionally or inadvertently excluded?
Some publications fail to present all facts or cover all perspectives. Even if a publication is a scholarly source it might be biased.
Consider the following topics. Is it safe to rely on just one published source?
- the Euro and Britain
- testing athletes for “over the counter” medicines
- the assassination of Kennedy
- Enron Corporation
- mobile phone masts and health risks
It is rare to find all academics and experts in complete agreement on a topic. More often academics will hold differing views and will attempt to support their hypotheses with research evidence.
By demonstrating a depth of research in your work, you show consideration for all aspects of a topic. If there is contradictory or conflicting information that you have failed to consider, your conclusions may be questioned. You need to demonstrate that you are aware of alternative views and explain why you disagree.
What kind of language is used?
Some sources are written in an objective style using specific and unemotional language. Most academic sources use this style. Use of emotionally charged language or language that is vague and general may be a clue that the information is biased or misrepresents the facts. The style of writing and language used is usually indicative of the purpose of the information.
Wikipedia (2009) Bias. [Online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bias. [Accessed 19th May 2009]
Note: this Wikipedia page has now changed (as of August 2011) and there is a similar but shortened definition now provided. This does not affect the definition of bias provided in this section as we would still agree with it!