Unbiased reporting as a reader function

By | 2013/04/21

Neutrality as a reader function

A lot of people get very upset about bias in the media. Many of our politicians are certainly always crying bias, sometimes legitimately, sometimes less so. The chorus of “bias!” seems to rise most stridently from whatever camp has just had a particularly unpleasant interview situation.

Lately, claims of bias have grown in many circles. In fact, in pretty much all circles, regardless of whether they’re extreme right, right, centre-right, centre, centre-left, left, or extreme left. I’ve certainly been known to get quite upset about bias in the media, and it’s something I’ve blogged about on a couple of occasions.

The rise of the independent blogger, when it comes to political news, is often championed as the solution to a biased and corporate/politically influenced media. Yet, much as that’s advocated as a panacea, it’s often anything but. Just as in mainstream media, you have your left and right wing bloggers, but in a free for all environment unbound by financial concerns, it actually allows those whose views are normally so extreme (on either end of the spectrum) to espouse views that would normally be filtered by the mainstream media.

Bias is there, for sure, and it’s not showing any sign of budging. It moves with the times, and it moves with the medium.

The problem is that ultimately, it’s very difficult to be completely unbiased. We can all praise the ideal of a lack of bias, but in that sense, it’s a bit like communism: seemingly the greatest form of government ever invented, except is just doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work for one simple reason: humans.

So in all the often vociferous debate about bias in the media, many of us have forgotten that simple rule: it takes two to tango. No article written achieves anything unless it’s read by someone, and that means that we, as readers and consumers, have an obligation to deactivate the bias ourselves. Choosing not to do so – focusing solely on demanding unbiased reporting – is ultimately an abdication of responsibility. In that sense, it’s no different than lazy parents who insist the internet be highly censored in order to save themselves the hassle of keeping an eye on what their kids are up to.

In the modern information age though, there’s just one catch to being an unbiased reader: filter bubbles. Despite the apparent convenience they provide, and the jury still being out, I’d suggest filter bubbles have the potential to be one of the most insidious threats to information accuracy present in the information age. It makes the corporate-influenced bias of mainstream media look tame, by comparison:

A filter bubble is a result state in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behaviour and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or idealogical bubbles.

(Wikipedia, Filter Bubble.)

The growth of social media as a means of information dissemination, and the continuing reliance on “smart” algorithms in search results places two key obligations on the reader:

  • to be keen to see an unbiased viewpoint from which an informed decision can be made;
  • to recognise that you won’t see the bigger picture unless you look for it.

The first obligation is the easier to understand – it’s deciding to step outside a bubble that someone else is trying to put around us. The second can be considerably harder – it’s about stepping outside of a bubble that forms as a basis of our own predispositions. The first bubble is easily identifiable; the second one, potentially invisible.

If you’re concerned about filter bubbles (and you should be, in my opinion), your first goal should be to make sure that for at least the important things, you search in more than one search engine, and/or via an anonymous and unfiltered search engine, such as DuckDuckGo. Movie tickets? Sure, just go to Google or Bing. Causes of the GFC? Something like DuckDuckGo is likely to be your better option.

Ultimately, if we’re concerned about having unbiased reporting, then we need to accept our obligation of bias-neutralising consumption. Neither obviates the other.