Have you been accused of being biased? Or is it everyone else who is? While charges of bias are most common in the media and politics, there is certainly plenty to go around in business, education and everyday life. Let’s consider what bias is, how it effects our perception of messengers and their messages, how well we know our own biases, and how that might affect our own communication and relationships.
The meaning of bias
In human interaction, bias can range from a “bent” or “tendency”—not necessarily negative—to a stronger and definitely negative “prejudice” and even further manifest as to “hatred.” Before looking at human communication, there are some other situations that provide interesting insights into the meaning of the term bias.
- When I was in high school I got involved in electronics and ham radio. That was still the age of vacuum tubes, where bias meant a small current applied to an element in a vacuum tube that helped set its optimal performance—to “bend” in a positive way.
- In sewing and fashion, cutting “on the bias” means cutting on a line diagonal to the grain of the fabric, or orienting the pattern on the diagonal. According to WiseGeek, “A garment cut this way has a distinctive look and feel, and it tends to flow more, feel more elastic, and cling to the body.” (1)
- Did you know that lawn bowling balls can be biased? If there is an imperfection, the bowl (ball) may not roll straight. It can also be done on purpose. According to a glossary on the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club website, bias is a “weighted offset to make the bowl curve....” (2)
More typically, however, and especially in human relationships, bias has a negative connotation. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the primary definition of bias is
“a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly.” (3)
Bias is a two-way street. People with ideas different from yours may appear biased to you. But your own position, while comfortable to you, may be seen as biased by those with different ideas. This should seem obvious, but many people (including journalists) do not recognize the inherent bias of their own position and how it effects the way they report stories, think about their audience, and how they can be perceived by others.
Making bias even more invisible within an organizational or subculture is the influence of “group think” that can lead everyone into a very narrow position. This can intensify the feeling of the rightness of their views in contrast to the rest of the world. (Group think can also be found in other settings, where the issue is not ideological, but more procedural—for example,. the failures in decision-making that led to the Challenger Shuttle disaster).
Perceptions of bias
Let’s see what impacts our perception of messages and messengers (I’ll call messengers the “source”). We’ll use the typical left to right continuum used to describe political ideology. Where you are on such a scale is the result of a complex mix of factors—age, gender, education, income, region, ethnic/cultural background, language, religion, all of which combine to form your worldview. In reality, it is not as simple as putting an x on a continuum. Even in politics, it is common to hear people position themselves differently for economic issues, social issues, or other factors. However, for the sake of our discussion about bias, the simple scale will do.
Some general observations:
- Your own position feels “normal,” which appears to you as correct and unbiased, with your perception of the bias of other positions increasing with distance. More on that later.
- The closer your own position is to that of the source, the less you will feel it is biased. Some discomfort might come because of personality issues, poor communication skill or other “noise,” but basically it is a comfortable setting. Tolerance for the other person (or position represented) is not much of an issue.
- With moderate differences in position, especially near the center, the source may be perceived as biased, but within the realm of a workable difference of opinion. Tolerance of the other person and/or position is possible, especially when there is an informed dialogue between you and the source.
- The greater the distance between you and the source, the more blatant the bias will appear. For people at either extreme, even opinions of those near them may seem biased, and those at the opposite extreme will likely be seen as malicious and hateful. To someone at the extreme left, everyone else seems conservative. To someone at the extreme right, even other conservatives may be perceived as too liberal. Calls for tolerance and respect of diversity on the part of others can themselves be highly intolerant, even toward people in the middle, but especially toward the opposite extreme.
- Also at the extremes, the view of the other end can be simplistic and compressed or flat. Far away everything looks the same and differences appear minor, even indistinguishable; while close up the differences can be a major cause of distinction and division. The distortion of perspective can be fueled by lack of information or misinformation. Bias is intensified and tolerance low.
A current example of this is the movement over the past few decades from using the term “Religious Right” to “Evangelical Christians,” particularly in reference to a voting bloc. While there is a tendency to assign them to a monolithic far right position, in truth these adherents will be found on a much broader swath of the continuum. (4)
Where you are is “normal” and “right”
A frequent complaint from the right is the left-leaning bias of “mainstream” media. Yet, those in it feel they represent the norm. It is the critics who are biased, they may say. From their perspective, right-leaning media may be seen as even more biased, or dismissed as legitimate news sources. It works the other way around, too, since every point on the ideological scale represents a bias in relation to other points on the scale.
The 24-hour news cycle and the multiplication of news outlets with cable television and the internet could well have contributed to a movement from being news reporters to news makers. The concern here is not as much with commentators who make no bones about their viewpoint, but with those representing themselves as news sources. It can become a vicious cycle, as ideological bias leads to a narrower viewpoint attracting a matching audience, which leads to increasing expressions of political identity and agendas posing as news. Could not this contribute to the hyper-partisanship that seems to be a common complaint today?
Trust and Credibility
When a source with little or no credibility from your point of view conveys a message you do not agree with, it’s no big deal—your own position will be reinforced.
The trouble comes when there is something about the message or the source that causes dissonance with your own view. When a source you trust conveys a message different from the view you hold, the credibility of that source may come into play. As years of social science research have shown, if you view the source as credible, that may influence you to be more accepting of the dissonant message, even to the point of changing your own position on a subject.
On the other hand, you could hold to your view on the subject and diminish your trust in the source, which you may now view as more biased.
Looking at it from another angle, a message that resonates with you could increase the credibility of a source you previously did not agree with. Your own feeling that the source is biased could be reduced.
In each of these cases, something has to give to keep your internal inventory of ideas and sources in balance.
Driven to extremes
In a free society, the belief in freedom of expression narrows significantly as you move toward one extreme or the other.
After a short period of optimism following World War II, the Cold War became the next fear-inducing menace to strike America. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was a zealot on the far right in the 1950s, in pursuit of communists and socialists who were, he and others thought, out to destroy America. What has widely been portrayed as a witch hunt led to the black-listing in their own industry because of fears the controversy would be bad for business.
Decades later, the pendulum has swung the other way, with liberally-driven political correctness. Those who don’t fall into the template of “tolerance” have too often been viciously treated, denied opportunities to express themselves, and some offenders forced into sensitivity training. Some of the worst examples come from American university campuses, the very places where professors have fought for their own freedom of expression.
In some issues we have, unfortunately, bifurcated something that should unite. An example of this is the distinction made between what is commonly called “social justice”—with adherents largely leaning left—and “social issues” or personal morality—with adherents largely leaning right. While this involves a number of complex layers, there is a major religious component that I will focus on.
The parting of the ways in American Christianity occurred over a long period of time, but was propelled by the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates of the early 20th century, which left a schism centered on views of the Bible, its application to daily life and the interface between believers and the host culture.
Modernists (of liberal persuasion) saw the need for engagement with society and a focus on justice, compelled by biblical injunctions to fight oppression and care for the poor and the widows. Fundamentalists (of conservative persuasion) saw the need to separate themselves from the culture in order to follow the call for personal holiness (righteousness).
The modern evangelical movement (with Billy Graham as its public face for many years) emerged after World War II to embrace the authority of the Bible while rejecting the separatism of the fundamentalists, instead engaging the culture in obedience to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. (4)
This division today is a human creation. The writers of the Old Testament, from Moses to David to the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, among others, frequently paired justice and righteousness. In the English Standard Version of the Bible the two words appear together 41 times. (5)
Simply put, justice applies to the horizontal, the relationships between people, who are created in the image of God, though tainted by self-centeredness and disobedience (sin). Righteousness is the vertical dimension, the relationship of people with a holy God. To separate justice and righteousness as separate positions on an ideological, political scale defies the intent so eloquently expressed in the Bible.
Striving for fairness
Bias comes in degrees and we all have our own, so what is the way forward in a multi-cultural, pluralistic world? Remember the definition we started with, “a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly.”
When I was teaching a media survey course, I used to show a documentary, “The Whole World is Watching,” about television coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The night before the convention started, my wife and I were in Grant Park, enjoying a very pleasant summer evening in Chicago’s stunning “front yard,” The next night we watched in disbelief as the same location turned ugly as anti-war (Vietnam), civil rights and other protestors clashed violently with police.
This was still early in the days of live coverage of such events, so the public was exposed in ways that are now commonplace. The impressions of the activity inside and outside the convention hall were powerfully conveyed through the images, but the context was shaped by the news organizations that presented them.
In the documentary, CBS’ Dan Rather (then a reporter, with Walter Cronkite as anchor) was asked about reporter bias. He explained that because bias is a part of human nature, a journalist has an obligation to be fair. That, of course, requires appropriate training, self-awareness, deep curiosity, enough skepticism across the board to discover the truth, all of which can produce a kind of corrective “bias” (like the earlier example about electronics) that ensures that the stories being reported are represented as fairly and balanced as possible.
- From WiseGeek (http://www.wisegeek.org/what-does-it-mean-to-be-cut-on-the-bias.htm)
- From the Merriam-Webster dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bias)
- Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club (http://www.palbc.org/glossary.html)
- See the Religion in America page on my website for more about my own research in this area.
- The Great Commandment and the Great Commission are found in the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew
- See BibleGateway for a list of passage in the Bible where “justice” and “righteousness” appear together.
* For web-based email, you may need to copy and paste the address yourself.