Bias and Media

Colorado journalist Chase Woodruff said last year, “I’m an extremely biased journalist; my bias is that I don’t think the survival of hundreds of millions of people and habitability of entire regions of the world is a less important question than oil companies’ profit margins.”

Let’s try to step back from whether we agree or disagree with the factual claims at the base of Woodruff’s remarks. What I want to point out is that a bias is not the same thing as a moral belief. The presumption that any moral belief is automatically a bias (or the result of a bias) stems from the false belief that morality is purely subjective or arbitrary.

Libertarian radio host Ross Kaminsky said something comparable: “I don’t claim to be unbiased. I just claim to be non-partisan and also that I try to state my biases up front. For example, I’m biased in favor of individual liberty.” I replied, “You rationally endorse individual liberty.” To this, Kaminsky replied that “many people on the left and the right oppose that.” I answered, “I think you’re misusing the term ‘bias.’ Lots of people think the biological theory of evolution is false, but I’m not ‘biased’ for endorsing it.” So there are two issues here. A bias is not a belief that many people reject, nor is it a moral belief.

A bias is some mental disposition or habit or quirk that leads or tempts a person to believe something which is false. A genuine bias is always something we should try to overcome. The idea that we should embrace (some of) our biases stems from a confused notion of what a bias is.

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