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Research Essay Workshop: Skipping Biased Sources

This is my third post about finding sources of information for undergraduate research essays. So far, I’ve shown you how to determine just how valid a source is, by examining a source’s strengths and weaknesses.

As I’ve mentioned before, figuring out what sources to use and how to use them is complicated. It takes real critical thought to look at a source, identify its strengths and weaknesses, and decide how and if you’ll use it.

How you use a source is always a complicated choice—that really depends on the subject you’re writing about, what aspects of the subject you want to cover, and the different ways the source relates to your writing.

If you should use a source can be a complicated decision—you can carefully investigate every aspect of a source: the author, the publisher, the editors, the connection to other sources. …But you don’t necessarily have to do this. And if you’re going through a lot of different readings but only need to use a few of them as essay sources, you probably shouldn’t investigate every source that deeply.

Instead, it could be better to just look for “red flags”—signs that a source probably has weaknesses. When you see these signs of trouble, you can skip the source and focus your attention on other sources that are more likely to work for you. Let’s look at three major read flags that indicate a source has bias and is focusing on opinions instead of facts.


3 signs that a source is biased and should be tossed out

1) It contains very emotional language.

Sometimes a piece of writing is very emotional. This doesn’t make it bad writing. But it does mean the writing is likely to focus more on opinions than facts. So if you are looking for a way to quickly eliminate sources that probably aren’t useful, look for words that are very emotionally charged: words like “incredible,” “immoral,” “outrageous,” “overjoyed,” “thrilled,” “unfair,” etc… Basically you want to avoid a source if it’s full of words that express opinions (as opposed to fact), and express opinions strongly.

2) It contains language that is very political, religious, nationalistic, or racial.

This is a distinction you need to make carefully. Of course there are many good factual pieces about politics, religion, national pride, and different races of people. But just as often, these subjects inspire people to write about their own personal opinions.

If an article is not specifically about religion, politics, patriotism, or race, it probably shouldn’t have a lot of references to these things. A valid article on economics shouldn’t focus on what one religion or another teaches about the economy.  A valid history of a country will not focus on just one political party in the country, or praise the country at the expense of other nations. And talk about racial differences is probably a bad sign in an article on human intelligence or behavioral science.

If these sometimes divisive subjects turn up in places where they don’t belong, it’s a good sign you should discard the source and move on to something new.

3) It appears to be an advertisement

This is less of a problem in printed materials. Books don’t usually contain ads, and periodicals tend to label their ads pretty clearly. However, websites very often have a few articles that are really advertisements disguised as articles. Sometimes, the link to the article is labeled is small letters with a word like “sponsored content” or “promoted post.”

But sometimes the label just isn’t there. When you read articles online, especially on popular, non-scholarly websites, read them very carefully. Does it seem like the article is promoting a certain product, or just talking a lot about the services you can get from a specific company? If you start to notice this, skip the article and move on—there are better sources that are more worth your time.


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