Bias: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

bias /ˈbaɪ əs/ noun – a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned

Bias. While it is not a word exclusive to politics, the political realm is where it is tossed out the most. Used to describe news channels, pundits, politicians and more, “bias” has become a vulgar epithet intended to discredit the opposition. But if you read through the provided definition, there is nothing inherently negative about “tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion.” It is very much subjective and dependent on the person using it.

Recently, I was happy to learn about Ford’s announcement of the production of the Focus RS for their 2016 model line up. This innocuous statement displays my own bias. While I don’t claim to be a library of knowledge on the history of automotive racing, I know enough (on that, among other things) that this simple statement sparked my excitement. The “RS” moniker, for most manufacturers, means “Rally Sport.” Rallying is a fast paced and exciting form of off road racing utilizing high horsepower turbocharged 4- and 5-cylinder engines, performance suspension, and all wheel drive transmissions. While this car isn’t ready to race from the factory, it will be half-way there if similar vehicles are any indication of the Focus’ competition. Combined with a working knowledge of the partnership between Ford and the legendary Cosworth in the racing world, my biased opinion is that the Focus RS will be quite the pocket rocket and find its way to my garage – hopefully, some day soon.

That’s all that bias is. I heard a statement, compared it against what I know or assume to be true, and formed an opinion. I’m sure someone is out there who completely disagrees with me based on their own biased opinions, and that is perfectly ok! Disagreement encourages research and discussion. The result of which is progress that benefits everyone. How boring would be if everyone blindly agreed to everything? What if everyone was ok with walking everywhere? Someone had to say, “I disagree! I want to travel faster!” Animals were then harnessed and carriages built. And in the last century, the development and refinement of the automobile. What awesome stuff!

Particularly in the political realm, how did bias come to have such a negative, derogatory implication? Your guess is as good as mine. And it’s not just negative or derogatory. In context, it is used to convey that something is objectively wrong or incorrect. It happens all over the spectrum:

“You’re free to use any news source except Fox because they’re too biased.”

“Typical HuffPo bias…”

“Apparently Fox is running a story on reporting bias in media. Talk about irony.”

“Leave it to MSNBC to talk about their own biases than report facts.”

All of these are examples that I’ve personally seen or heard. Particularly in the first example (a former professor of mine at UK, by the way), bias is used to imply that Fox is objectively and measurably wrong. Are they? It depends on who you ask. I am neither defending nor condemning Fox News. The same can be said for MSNBC in the last comment.

We rely on news channels because – let’s be honest – we’d rather get reports on ISIS in the comfort of our homes than hunkered down behind a wall in Syria, avoiding AK47 gun fire. We expect the news channels to present things clearly, truthfully, and objectively. However, as demonstrated above and especially in light of the Brian Williams fiasco, we know that this doesn’t always happen. International stories, violent incidents, political policies, and even local reporting can incite a range of emotions, reactions, and discussions. Attempting a discussion amongst the static from the Godwins and Poes of the internet can be equally unnerving.

The point is… It’s not about whether or not a news source is objectively correct; it’s about recognizing that A) the anchors, reporters, executives, etc. have their own opinions that will inevitably ooze into the segments and B) every single person on the planet is guilty of confirmation bias. We hate being told when we’re wrong or having to admit when we’re wrong. It’s human nature. Some of us handle it better, but overall, we hate it because it’s uncomfortable. In an attempt to minimize that, we seek out information that reaffirms our beliefs. This is confirmation bias. Re-read the previous examples and you’ll recognize it. Anytime you hear someone say something along the lines of “I like MSNBC (Fox) because it’s honest reporting – unlike Fox (MSNBC) which is too biased for me.” It’s not about honesty – it’s about someone authoritative (an adjective sometimes used for news anchors) sharing a similar opinion as truth. This is why the left prefers Maddow, the right prefers Limbaugh, and libertarians (like me) prefer Stossel.

After the Trayvon Martin incident, there was *a lot* of speculation and interpretation. Even a court trial can only do so much. During the ordeal, I kept saying, “Only three people know for a fact what happened that night: Trayvon, Zimmerman, and God. One is dead, one has testified, and the other is choosing to sit out for some reason. All we know after that is what is presented.” Enter – biased news anchors, and with them, their interpretations and opinions. Where would we be without them? Like I said before, someone has to say “I disagree” and present their evidence to the contrary. It’s with that evidence of the contrary that changes are made – progress is made – innovation is bestowed upon us. People dig and provide details that weren’t initially presented.

And we’re all better off – and better informed – because of it.

Further Reading: Hostile Media Effect

Oh yeah….

Before someone asks…

Here’s your meme:

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