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Fact or Opinion Study Guide (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 19, 2011

Determining Bias

Bias is a preference that makes a person prejudiced. We often assume that authors of factual information are without bias. News articles by their very nature are intended to be objective reports of facts. The opinion of the writer shouldn't play a part in the reporting. But just like everyone else, writers have opinions about things and these opinions sometimes creep into their reporting. For example, newspaper and TV reporters are supposed to deliver the facts without giving an opinion, but you can't assume that they do. As a skeptical reader, be aware of word usage, and as a viewer, keep your eyes and ears open. Body language and voice inflection can tell a lot about the reporter's views on a subject.

Some TV news channels stress that their coverage of stories is balanced and fair, but many critics say newscasters are often biased in their reporting. In fact, many critics—and viewers—believe that certain channels are always for the "left" while others are always for the "right."

Watch and read the news from a variety of sources. Check for differences in story coverage. Which spent more time on a celebrity death or divorce than on peace talks or problems in the Middle East? Which skipped the Middle East stories altogether to give coverage to a local politician's hand-shaking opportunity that day? Try to find out more about the people who report the news. Are they former politicians or political speechwriters? Do they have affiliations with special interest groups? What, if any, are their biases?

Evaluating Internet Information

As discussed in the last lesson, anyone can publish on the Internet. It takes very little money or skill to create a website, so the existence and look of a site is no indication that it's a valuable resource. That being said, the Internet really can be a great resource for information—just don't assume that everything you read is truthful and unbiased. You have to learn to differentiate between authentic and bogus information.

Who Wrote It?

The first step in determining if Internet information is truthful and unbiased is to evaluate it in terms of authority. Ask three questions:

  1. "Who wrote or takes responsibility for this content?" Look for the name and contact information of the author, who may be an individual or an organization—more than just an e-mail address. If no author is listed, you may discover who published it by removing the last part of the URL to the right of the last slash, and then clicking on search. If that doesn't work, remove the next part of the Web address, continuing from right to left until you reach the publisher's page. Does the publisher claim responsibility for the content or explain why the page exists? If not, you can't determine the authority of the site.
  2. "What are the qualifications of the person or group responsible for this page?" (See the section on verifying an author's credentials earlier in the lesson.) Many people write daily blogs and may not have any know-how on the subject.
  3. "Can I verify the legitimacy of the person or group?" This should be relatively easy to determine for well-known authors and groups who publish online. For others, you can contact them by e-mail, if an address is provided, and ask about credentials and legitimacy. But this isn't foolproof, so consider any whose legitimacy is difficult to verify as a source of opinion, not fact.

Judge the Accuracy of the Content

There are a few giveaways of marginal content. Review the website for the following:

  1. Sources of factual information should be clearly listed so they can be verified elsewhere. Do not accept anything as fact that you can't verify at least three times, in three unique locations.
  2. Factual information should come directly from its source. A statistic from the Wall Street Journal is more likely to be correct if you get it from their website, rather than rely on it as printed somewhere else. Always go to the source website (if one exists) or print material to check facts.
  3. There should be no grammatical, spelling, or typographical errors. Not only do these errors indicate weak or nonexistent editing, but they can lead to inaccuracies in information.
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