Chapter 4: Evaluating information

4.4b Investigate the source: Bias

Recognize types of bias

Conflicts of interest are a type of bias, but they aren’t the only type of bias you should watch out for when investigating sources. Biases can be driven by commercial interests, the influence of a publisher or publication’s audience, or personal beliefs, such as the political or religious beliefs of an author. Below we have listed five common types of bias:

Article selection

All publications choose which articles to publish and how much to emphasize them. However, when the article selection process distorts what the audience perceives as important or true, this becomes a form of bias. For example, editors may place new articles with still-developing stories more prominently than they do follow-up articles that complete the picture.[1] Similarly, scholarly articles that try to reproduce the results of prior research have a harder time getting published than articles with new research questions.

Framing

Even if an article’s claims are technically true, the way that they are presented may be misleading.[2] This is called framing: the way an author manipulates the context around an argument to promote their own interpretation. Biased framing often occurs in articles about controversial issues, but it can happen in various contexts. For example, framing can take the form of clickbait, when a publication makes an article seem more interesting by using a sensational headline to attract readers.

Framing can also occur within an article, such as when an author provides a conclusion that is not actually supported by their evidence. Authors may intentionally frame their story to favor their position, but occasionally misleading framing is caused by poor reasoning or ignorance on the part of the author. You find this a lot in news media, but framing bias can also appear in scholarly contexts.

Absence of balance

When an article presents only one side of a story, event, or issue without considering other relevant viewpoints, this can lead to an absence of balance. Examples of an absence of balance include telling only a portion of a story or not reporting the full context to avoid information that conflicts with the author’s point of view. Aside from excluding information, balance can also be skewed through the use of emotionally loaded language that clearly favors or disparages one position.

Sometimes authors can fall into a false balance. This happens when authors give equal coverage to perspectives that are not equally supported by facts, in an effort to appear balanced.[3] However, this gives the false impression that both perspectives are equally important and valid.

Flawed sourcing

Flawed sourcing is when an article reports information without supporting it with context and references. This type of bias typically occurs due to a lack of good research practice. For example, the author may not have searched for sources extensively enough, missing key information about their topic. Alternatively, an author may not indicate where the information in their story came from, even when they have consulted sources they should reference. Finally, even when references are provided, an author may be using unreliable sources.

Note: sometimes a journalist or researcher will reference an anonymous source⁠—a person known to the author but not identified to the public to protect the source’s privacy. If an author clearly states they have used an anonymous source, this is not a sign of flawed sourcing.

Tone

Tone can be biased in the way the author uses words and phrases to influence a reader’s perceptions of and reactions toward a topic. Tone can be manipulated in many ways, such as:

  • Word choice: when the author’s choice of words gives a topic a positive or negative connotation. Compare positive words such as youthful, smile, proud with negative words such as childish, smirk, gloating.
  • Sensationalism: twisting the context of a story to maximize the emotional impact for readers, or to overemphasize the importance of a situation or topic.
  • Mudslinging: the use of misleading or insulting statements to harm or discredit an individual or group’s reputation.
  • Opinions presented as facts: presenting unverified information as fact without making clear that the information is subjective, unconfirmed, or only an opinion.
  • Facts presented as opinions: when the author ignores the available evidence for facts that contradict their position.

Everything that is touched by humans has some form of bias. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but being aware of bias is essential. Bias becomes a problem when it gets in the way of accurately reporting on an issue, topic, or event. Unless you are researching public perception, you should seek out sources that discuss your topic as objectively as possible.


  1. Hartford Union High School. (n.d.). Media bias uncovered: Overview. Retrieved from https://libguides.huhs.org/mediabias
  2. Caulfield, M. (2019, October 3). It's not the claim, it's the frame. Hapgood blog. Retrieved from https://hapgood.us/2019/10/03/its-not-the-claim-its-the-frame/
  3. Aliprandini, M., and Flynn, S.I. (2016). Media Bias: An Overview. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.