Understanding Bias in Sources

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13854

Did you know that all information has some form of bias? To understand how bias presents itself in sources, thoroughly explore how George Washington is remembered.

categories

Writing

subject
Social Studies
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Everything ever created, from books to videos to paintings, is the product of one or multiple points of view.

Take, for example, the U.S. Capitol Building:

us capitol

Inside the dome roof, there is an ornate ceiling painting:

inside Capitol Building

  • What exactly does it depict?

The Apotheosis of Washington

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

It is George Washington sitting in the center of a Greco-Roman-style painting.

  • If you were to make a judgment about George Washington based solely on this painting, would you think he was almost a god?

Everything ever created has a narrative. This painting was completed in 1865.

  • What are the current narratives of Washington's life, and how do they conflict with those of the 19th century?

Introduction

misinformation bubbles

  • What is bias?

Bias is when someone's personal opinion of a certain person, group, or event becomes a part of the information being provided.

This lesson has a bias. All information you read on any site will be biased. However, many people and organizations try to minimize the level of bias in their information.

This lesson will explore three biographies of George Washington, focusing on how the information in each changes.

  • Was something included or omitted that one of the other sources talked about?

george washington

The first step when obtaining information is to always research the source in order to understand what bias might guide its information.

PragerU

Before watching PragerU's biography of George Washington, check out its What Is PragerU? about page.

  • Do you notice any manner of bias after reading about this organization?

PragerU is a conservative organization which values traditional American values. It is likely, therefore, that time-honored American historical figures will be presented in a positive light by this source.

With this in mind, watch PragerU's What Made George Washington Great?, and pay attention to the narrator's clear opinion of Washington:

  • Can you connect the bias you identified in your research to the information presented in the video?

Bias in writing is not strictly bad; however, bias can inhibit giving the whole picture of someone's life or story.

  • How long was the video?

In the space of a 5-minute video, you can only include so much information. So while there is much the narrator could have talked about, his own personal judgment led him to focus on and emphasize the heroic aspects of Washington's life.

Creating a longer more well-rounded video, though, may have limited the number of viewers. Few people are willing to watch 10- or 20-minute videos.

White House

white house

Keeping a viewer engaged is even more difficult with written information. For this reason, written text like biographies often need to be as short as possible.

This concern influences the official White House website's biographies of the American presidents.

As you read George Washington: The 1st President of The United States, written by the White House Historical Association, pay attention to any differences you notice in this material compared to the PragerU video.

  • Were there any substantial differences?
  • In what way does it focus more on the struggles Washington encountered as president? Why do you think that is the case?

The White House is trying to quickly give a summary of Washington's life and actions as president. The presidency is obviously the focus of the biography because the president lives in the White House.

Therefore, this text is less celebratory of Washington's accomplishments and instead explains why his two terms in office were influential and important.

  • Would you expect the White House to praise or criticize presidents in their biographies?

While official information from the White House will focus more on facts than opinions, it will also be more biased in favor of the life and actions of George Washington.

Mount Vernon

mount vernon

  • Has anything about George Washington been overlooked in the above sources?

The White House biography mentioned that "Washington longed to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon." However, it did not mention that Washington owned over 100 slaves who tended to the fields for him at his home.

To learn more about George Washington's relationship with slavery, read the Slavery excerpt from the Biography of George Washington found on the Mount Vernon site.

(If you check out the complete biography, you will notice it is much longer than the one found on The White House website. This is because, as a resource specifically about George Washington, it is assumed people will be willing to read more information.)

  • Given that this information is being provided by the organization that maintains Washington's estate, do you think it will be completely accurate?

George Washington owned hundreds of slaves in his lifetime, and his estate includes countless buildings wherein slaves lived and worked. Although Mount Vernon may not want to talk about the reality of slavery in Washington's life, they have included it as a part of their general biography.

chained feet

However, at the end of this passage about slavery, the author states that Washington's will freed his slaves. This is not completely accurate.

Washington's will stated that these slaves should be freed when his wife died, which means they were not made free outright. So even though this source gave a more complete and accurate account of George Washington's life, it was still not 100% accurate.

There is an infinite amount of biases people may have, making it very difficult to find the truth by looking at only a single source.

Every one of the sources you examined told you more about George Washington than you likely knew. However, you have a much more accurate and expansive understanding of his life and actions now because you looked at three different sources.

Move on to the Got It? section to consider how the biases in these sources could be identified even before reading them and to learn ways to ensure you get accurate information in the future.

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.