Commentary

A Preference is Not a Bias

It is not journalistic bias for a journalist to have a considered preference. It is only journalistic bias to allow one's preference to distort one's presentation of the facts.

By Jeremy Wilkins
Published October 28, 2014

In a recent editorial, independent journalist Joey Coleman discussed the merits of editorial endorsements of candidates for political office.

He explained why he was likely to resume the practice of endorsing candidates in the future, and how he had come to the conclusion that this was the responsible thing to do.

Laying this out in his usual transparent, honest, and straightforward manner, Joey described his political preferences as a 'bias'. However, I do not agree with him. I do not believe Joey voted out of a bias, but rather out of a responsible preference.

I disagree with his choice of words, because I agree with his stance on responsibility.

Preference and Bias

A preference is not a bias. Anyone who, like Joey, is committed to being responsible, is locked in a relentless struggle against bias.

It is not journalistic bias for a journalist to have a considered preference. It is only journalistic bias to allow one's preference to distort one's presentation of the facts - to misinterpret, to cherry-pick, to malign unfairly.

Let me pause to make very clear that I am not picking on Joey Coleman. I am taking his remarks as an opportunity to clarify a point I think he will agree with.

It is true that we all have biases. But biases are not the same as preferences. Biases are distortions in our preferences.

Considered preferences are judgments of value: X is worthwhile, X is better than Y. Bias, on the other hand, just brushes questions aside.

If I operate as if the only relevant question is, What's in it for me?, that's a bias. We all recognize this as selfishness. If I operate as if the only relevant question is, What's in it for my group?, that's a bias recognizable in racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and so on.

The 'Practical' Bias

Perhaps more difficult to recognize, but equally pervasive, is what we might call the 'practical bias.' If I operate as if only immediate, practical issues are relevant, that is a bias.

It is a bias against long-term thinking. It is a bias agains the complex analysis called for by complex situations. It brushes questions aside, because they are not immediately 'practical', and perhaps because they are also difficult.

The 'practical bias' is a flight from understanding. Climate dynamics, economic dynamics, urban vitality are complex issues that call for a comparably complex understanding.

This is not the impression one might get from talk radio. To borrow a phrase from H. L. Mencken, the solutions there are simple, obvious, and wrong.

Narrow Debate

This kind of bias - the 'practical bias' - affects our civic conversation as much as the individual and group biases do.

For example, the discussion of one-ways streets in Hamilton always seems to derail into a narrow debate about traffic flow. Traffic flows are easy to imagine - but, it turns out, deceptively complex to understand: see induced demand.

What is much harder to imagine, and harder still to understand, is very easily overlooked by the practical bias.

So, for instance, questions about street design are related to neighborhood vitality, commerce, safety, health outcomes, air quality, climate change, development patterns, aesthetics, quality of life, and a host of other values.

It turns out that our decisions about how we arrange our streets are also decisions about many other values. But those values are difficult to bring into focus.

Correcting Distortions

A bias is a structure or pattern of distortion. Preferences, on the other hand, are evaluations. Evaluation may be - and probably always is, to some degree - distorted by bias. But it is not necessarily distorted by bias, and it is certainly not the same as bias.

If it were, there would be no point in getting informed about the issues. There would be no point in doing one's level best to evaluate situations honestly and make decisions responsibly.

The fact is that all of us are subject to biases. But in the measure that we are striving to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving, we are also struggling to overcome our biases. We want to understand, so we pay attention and ask questions.

We want to understand correctly, and so we demand evidence. We want to act responsibly, and so we inform ourselves about the issues, sift through the values at stake, and make the best decisions we can given the options before us.

Every decision reflects, enacts, embodies preferences. We have to discern the values at stake. We cannot avoid ranking them. Our rankings are distorted by bias, when we refuse to entertain relevant questions just because they do not affect me, or my group, or are not 'practical'.

Being responsible involves working to correct the distortions in our preferences through serious, diligent, honest inquiry.

To describe this process as bias runs the risk of a grave confusion. Bias is a distortion, but we are - or we should be - committed to getting it right, and doing what's right.

Jeremy Wilkins lives with his family in Hamilton's Landsdown neighbourhood, Ward 3. Before Hamilton he lived in eleven other cities, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, St Louis, Toronto, Boston, and Houston. He is here now and loves it. He plans to stick around.

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By Inhocmark (registered) | Posted October 28, 2014 at 23:02:03

I am inclined to agree with you, however allowing your preference to impact your reporting when your role is not editorial means you show bias. It's a slippery slope. I think my experiences in teacher's college when I was doing my in class training ends up being quite similar to the challenges facing a news reporter. When you interact with people you can not help to prefer some people over others. I had students that I preferred for whatever reason. The biggest challenge is not to allow those preferences to interfere with the way you run a classroom and end up showing a bias against specific children overtly or otherwise.

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By j.servus (registered) | Posted October 30, 2014 at 08:13:12 in reply to Comment 105722

Thanks for your helpful remark. You raise an important point: There is a difference between reporting and advocating, and it is not always demarcated by a bright line, because sometimes the way we report can be a subtle form of advocacy, or at least reflect our own value preferences. And one has to be alert to that and strive mightily to be fair--which is what a good reporter, like Joey, is doing. And it may be that being honest and open about one's preferences also helps one--and one's readers--control for the way they may subtly shape one's reporting (for instance).

Your comment about your teaching experience illustrates an ambiguity or even an equivocation in the way we use 'preference.' I am also a teacher and I have often had the experience you describe. It is a spontaneous felt 'preference'. But it is not exactly what I mean by a 'considered preference', because 'considered' is adding a discernment, a critical sifting and examination. Good teachers, I think, generally realize that they have to control for their spontaneous preferences for some students. Part of their job, in fact, is to evaluate students; and they know that evaluation is not just a matter of giving high marks to the students they like and low marks to the students they do not like.

The spontaneous, felt preference is very important--it is our feeling for value, and perhaps we would not be able to recognize any values if we did not have such feelings--but it is also just the beginning. It is an invitation to discernment: There is something attractive here, but I have to sort out what it is and weigh its real worth carefully.

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By cerberus (anonymous) | Posted October 29, 2014 at 14:13:02

I know it's more cerebral than political but I love these kinds of articles. Really makes you stop and think about something I hadn't thought much about. Now I'm thinking about whether I have a preference or a bias...

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By j.servus (registered) | Posted October 30, 2014 at 07:55:27 in reply to Comment 105735

Thanks for the comment. I am glad you enjoyed the post. I would suggest that, in all likelihood, you have both preferences and biases. That is, you have preferences, which are probably distorted, in various ways and to some extent, by biases. That's true for all of us. Being committed to goodness means doing whatever you can to overcome biases and arrive at authentic, self-transcending preferences. But there is no magic serum to get us there.

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