Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Finding Bias in Non-Fiction

Critical reading of any text is an important skill for secondary students, and recognizing bias is a fundamental part of the process. It's easy to teach students how to recognize bias in potential sources for research, but it's not as easy with book-length non-fiction.

When you consider the investment in reading a book-length work, and the artful way the information is often presented, it is not surprising that it is hard to identify bias. Another reason it is difficult is because any work will contain some bias, simply by the necessary choices of what to include, what to leave out, and what point of view to present, among other decisions. I know from my time as journalist that even a just-the-facts story can be presented in a way to promote a particular viewpoint from something as simple as the information presented in the first few sentences.

I teach units on the non-fiction books The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers in my classes. Both of these books present stories that are compelling, descriptive, and read like novels. It is easy to lose yourself in the stories and forget to stop and consider the choices these masterful writers are making to present their stories. During discussions about bias with these two books, students have often bristled or become upset when I raise the possibility of bias. This is a good thing. It means they have engaged deeply with the reading, and if there is bias, it matters to them.

It helps to point out that it's impossible for any writer to present another person's story with complete accuracy, and that they did not set out to manipulate the truth. Both of these books, I argue, come from the authors wanting to tell the truthful stories of their characters, but they also want to promote a particular viewpoint. That necessarily involves crafting a narrative to do so, even while sticking to the facts. (Although in the wake of the hero in Eggers' novel being arrested multiple times for domestic violence after the story ends, many critics wonder if Eggers turned a blind eye to his less-than-saintly qualities.)

Whatever your approach, here are some questions that can open up a good discussion:

What information has the author chosen to focus on?
What information might the author have left out?
How does the point of view affect how the reader feels about the characters and story?
How much of the story is re-created by the author's imagination?
Is the author making an argument?
How does the story promote the author's argument?
Could there be an alternative telling of the story, and how might it be different?