The Shouting War and the Shrinking Message
Information Source Bias and Moral Development
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Communication unites our society and gives us a foundation for interaction.We communicate our needs, desires, and opinions through
different information modes such as written and spoken language,
images, and even purchases. Communication is also a catalyst for moral
principle development. When people cannot experience issues firsthand,
they rely on sources of information to develop attitudes towards those
issues. If those information sources are biased, and alternative sources
are lacking, people will inevitably develop biased values, attitudes, and opinions.
There is an increasing need to encourage a genuine debate when communicating to develop balanced moral principles. This can only
happen in an environment of civility where there is an opportunity for
alternative arguments to be considered. Ultimately, the responsibility to isten involves critical evaluations to develop the ‘right’ principles, while
avoiding the trap to simply agree on ‘wrong’ principles.
To be critical is to consider the issue from multiple angles to
determine facts or attitudes, and to uncover fallacies.In the past, people debated issues in person or read books and newspapers to educate
themselves. Information sources have evolved in the form of radio,
television, magazines, and the internet, making more data available than
ever before. We no longer need to search out information to educate
ourselves; instead we are overwhelmed with motive-driven media.
This analysis breaks down the information flow to illustrate the
different factors that shape its distribution and bias, and the tendencies
we have as a society when incorporating that information in our moral
development. I will start by describing how moral principles are
developed, and then detail information source structures as well as
general communication spheres and how they influence our judgment.
The argument is that information and communications are so prevalent in
modern society that competition for attention has become a reality. To
keep pace with the world around us our information sources have
abbreviated their messages, and to stand out in order for their message
to be heard they are increasing their visibility by becoming more
opinionated and sensational. In the end, increased competition for
attention, revenue, and information is resulting in skewed perceptions by
reducing civility and discouraging genuine debates.
Developing Our Moral Principles
All people have values and beliefs that shape their perceptions
and guide them in decision making. Separate from law, these principles are developed and refined through knowledge and experiences, and are
guidelines for our actions. Moral principles should promote justice and
represent our collective commitment to treat people fairly. 1
However, these principles should not be confused with rules.
Rules are often a way to avoid difficult decisions by deferring to an
established statute. Rules and laws are generally agreed upon by the
citizens they govern in an effort to establish definitions of what is ‘wrong.’ Having theserules deters citizens from undesirable behavior (as long as
they know the rules) and sets benchmarks for relative levels of deviance
to objectify persecution. This optimization is put into place by authorities
such as our government, churches, and schools.
For example, a Christian executioner may ignore the churche’s
rule that ‘thou shall not kill’ because he has developed principles
supporting payback and vengeance (there is a loophole in U.S. law that
permits him to be an executioner, because a job needs to be filled).
Whereas laws can be found in text, principles are developed from
personal exposure to the subject and evaluations after the experience.
The executioner’s set of principles may stem from past crimes committed
against him or his family, justifications through historical tradition, or an
environment of capital punishment activists.
Nonetheless, the executioner’s principles are not concrete; with
time and exposure to alternative viewpoints he may develop principles
rooted in the preservation of life and reevaluate his occupation. Rules can
be ignored, whereas principles are developed internally to define a person
and dictate their actions. This is a dynamic process, and can only be
facilitated through self-reflection and introspective analysis. Self-
reflection occurs through our personal experiences and interactions as
well as our interpretations of local, national, and world issues. When people do not experience certain issues firsthand, they defer to varying
sources of information to develop attitudes towards those issues.
We are exposed to innumerable sources of information and
opinion, both actively and passively, and they all compete for our
attention. Now that information sources are so abundant, it is hard to put
information in perspective due to a shortage of attention on the receiving
end. 2 Competitive sources secure attention by shortening messages so
that they are more digestible, or formatting the messages in loud and
hard to ignore ways.
It is important to be critical of information sources and their
motives before we use them to establish our own moral principles,
making sure not to blindly accept the values we are exposed to. The first
step in being critical is to understand the influences that structure
Information is a resource, and it costs money to produce and
consume. Availability, function, motive, distribution, and bias are all
information characteristics that reflect investment. These factors
determine how raw information is filtered and dispensed as research,
statistics, journalism, and entertainment media.
First, the raw information must be available to be discovered by
information sources, or sometimes found directly by ourselves. The
modern world of 24-hour news networks means that there is a constant
demand for information. Information sources are constantly monitoring
our world through research and surveillance, collecting statistics and
identifying patterns. This demand is not only fueled by a population accustomed to staying current on world issues, but also fueled by the fact
that communication sources must report a minimum amount of
information according to their circulation or transmission.
Presuming that there is no shortage of news to be reported, why
do we see the same stories reported repetitively and in more focus than
others? First, there are economic constraints to the amount of research
and production, and funding is budgeted within the organization. The
other reason for diminishing diversity is the increasing level of source
competition for attention as more communication channels emerge.
Individual attention is becoming more valuable and the total combined
attention potential also continues to rise.
When looked at with a supply and demand perspective,
information demand can be increased in two ways. The ‘pull’ method
involves information delivery corresponding directly to consumer interest,
catering to popular opinion. With a ‘push’ method, supply is increased by
the supplier to make the ‘purchase’ cheaper and easier for the consumer.
This is a ‘take it or leave it’ approach and it takes advantage of our
tendencies to defer to what is easily available. When making decisions as
to what to produce as an information source, bias develops relative to the
goals of the organization. The distribution of information then becomes a
means to an end.
Bias is aligned with the organization behind the source, as most
are interested in promoting their own ideals. Bias can also develop
through polarity when one source develops bias to directly counteract
another source. There are many other types of bias in the media. Ethnic
bias refers to racism and nationalism. Corporate bias is the reporting of
issues to favor the interests of the news media owners or its advertisers,
centered on revenue. Class bias favors one social class while ignoring or exaggerating class differences. Political bias is the alignment with political
parties, candidates, or policies. Religious bias is present when one
religious viewpoint is given preference over others. Sensationalism is bias
in favor of the extraordinary over the ordinary, whereby exceptional news
may be overemphasized, distorted or fabricated to boost commercial
ratings. Exaggerated influence of minority views is a type of
sensationalism to emphasize the new and different over the status quo,
usually in an attempt to appear fair. Finally there exists a bias towards
expediency, where already widely reported and available information is
re-reported, either to save on research costs or to fill
broadcasting/publishing requirements. 3
Regardless of bias, communication and information serve
different functions. Publishing and broadcasting are rooted in
entertainment and investigative reporting, but less credible than scholarly
research papers for educational purposes. The function of advertising is to
create demand for advertised products. Our government releases
information in order to keep the public informed and aware of
Besides all other characteristics, information
control is achieved through selective distribution, and how available
certain information is to both active and passive agents through research
and exposure, respectively.
Our contact with various information sources is relative with their
accessibility. 99% of households in the U.S. have at least one television
(average of 2.24 televisions per household4 ), making TV a large influence
in comparison to other information channels. 41.5% of households have
internet access 5 and there are 55 million newspapers in circulation daily 6
(22% of households). Alternative sources are more specific and in-depth
regarding subject matter, but require increased effort to find and use. Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to use the easiest information channels
the most often, limiting our comprehension potential.
A few theories support the idea of deferring to the most
accessible, entertaining, and agreeable sources. Comprehension has been
observed to increase when stimulation is paired with information, rather
than just presenting the information itself. 7 This is known as Activation
Theory and helps explain why sensationalism is so effective. Additionally,
Media Dependency Theory states that people depend on media for
information, entertainment, and parasocial relationships, and that the
source that fills that individual’s needs best will gain influence as the
individual becomes dependent on that source. “If someone is so
dependent on the media for information, and the media is that person’s
only source for information, then it is easy to set the agenda. The
individual falls victim to Agenda Setting [Theory].” 8
This psychological approach identifies the problem as the
exploitation of dependency to set agendas and purposely shape opinion.
This is unethical when viewed through a virtue framework, as it directly
inhibits personal opportunities to grow and develop values of justice,
wisdom, and moderation. Exploitation of dependency and attention also
diminishes fair representation and balanced moral development.
Our society’s principles are highly influenced by the structure and
availability of information sources, a structure dominated by television
and the government. The popular media is often supplied with incomplete
information only to report the story regardless. Our government is
notorious for operating in secrecy and carefully selecting the information
they report to the public. The distribution of information can be
controlled so that recipients form moral principles corresponding to their exposure to the topic. Lack of disclosure on the topic leads to skewed perceptions and underdeveloped moral principles, even if self-reflection is taking place. The audience of a one-sided debate is likely to agree with the presenter and their opinions when supplied with no other alternative
Because the media has sources of its own, it must choose what to
report. Credibility and fact-checking vary between organizations, leading
some sources to be more reliable than others. Although there is an
implied duty to be objective as a journalist, publications and television
networks are businesses, and entertainment is always a priority.
Therefore, sources who claim to be reliable impose a huge duty upon
themselves to actually be balanced an unbiased.
Oprah Winfrey has few opponents and usually promotes a good
message, so her viewpoints are widely respected and rarely questioned.
However, she continued to endorse a fabricated memoir 9 after it was
exposed as a hoax (by thesmokinggun.com). Her credibility was on the
line because she had made the book famous by supporting its content.
She and her supporters responded by promoting the ‘underlying message’
of the book regardless of its factual integrity. 10 Oprah failed to check the
facts before she put her reputation on the line, and because she did not
know the truth, she promoted a fallacy.
Finally, every issue must compete for a limited amount of public
attention and awareness. There has always been a problem surrounding
overexposure and sensationalization of issues to capture attention, sell
publications, and increase ratings. It has become increasingly competitive
as globalization is realized, and as world issues are having more substantial influence in American society. In response, sources have
‘turned up the volume’ in what - and how - they distribute information.
The concept of loudness applies to both media and advertising.
We have seen advertising increase in both frequency and intensity with
creative marketing techniques that integrate advertising into our daily
lives. It has become more entwined with the media through product
placement and corporate sponsorship of all kinds of events. Journalism
and entertainment are placing increased emphasis on the messages they
distribute, and this translates into more focused reports of certain issues.
Other issues are crowded out, and these diminished accounts suffer from
less visibility. There is a tendency to assume less visible issues are less
important, an assumption that places trust in the source to act as a filter.
Knowing that sources are acting as filters, we should be curious to learn
what information was screened out, why it was screened out, and where
we can find it in the general spheres of communication.
Classic Information Sources (CIS)
Every information source has a motive behind its production.
Classic Information Sources are composed of the mass-communication
industries of journalism and entertainment. Television’s main objective is
entertainment, and even news channels compete for the attention of
channel surfers. Magazines and the Internet are focused on delivering
entertainment, with the Internet now acting as an extension of TV
networks, newspapers, and magazines. Journalists write articles for
magazines that are interesting and engaging, and books follow the same
formula. Articles are published by organizations promoting and
advocating certain philosophies that align with those of the organization. Classic Information Sources have financial motives as their common
characteristic, and are also widely available, accessible, and filtered.
A major Classic Information Source, business information, is
incorporated into all types of media as both news and advertising. Businesses
use all available information channels to advertise products and services with
the goal of increasing demand and revenue. Businesses can also be a primary
data source as it generates economic data. Businesses produce a steady
stream of financial data, how much money changed hands and what was
purchased, to record inventory and keep stakeholders informed. Primary
source business information is different because it reports the quantitative
aspect of society, concerned with how Wall Street and financial news will
affect the economy and standards of living. However, even these hard
numbers are subject to biased interpretation depending on which CIS it is
The communication sphere centered on revenue is the domain of
Classic Information Sources. Economic pragmatism is the reason for this
alignment, which unfortunately results in an overshadowing of virtue ethics
in information distribution. This dichotomy of revenue versus values is
nothing original, but it takes a certain amount of disparity before the
discrimination becomes intolerable. Increased competition has uncovered
how influential financial stakes are for Classic Information Sources. Recently,
a new sphere centered on ideas and opinion has been growing in response,
as it becomes easier for independent sources to distribute information.
The Modern Information Proliferation (MIP)
There has been a rise in independent information sources since the
creation of the internet. They are regulated less by the government and less
concerned with stakeholder interests or profit than Classic Information Sources. They are also less visible but still widely available, accessed most often by directed searches. For example, scholarly journals are written by experts, for experts, presenting new research and ideas, verified and
agreed upon through a peer review process. 11 They are arguably the most
objective sources available, but they are difficult to locate and can be
expensive without access to a university library.
The internet has spawned a new variety of sources including
Wikipedia, blogs, discussion and ratings boards, e-newsletters, YouTube,
Facebook, MySpace, and independent websites. These are great sources
for raw information, by the people, for the people, but they often lack
accuracy and credibility. For this reason they are a valuable contrast to
Classic Information Sources, but they should be viewed through a
skeptical eye nonetheless.
Empowering the world to contribute individual opinions to the
rest of the world is a progressive leap in communication. This introduces
even more competition for awareness, but it is still only a whisper in a
room full of megaphones. Hopefully, those interested in hearing that
whisper will quiet the shouting by turning away from loud sources and
listening. A loud room is entertaining for only so long, and people should
welcome a trend towards intelligent conversation after being caught in
the middle of a deafening debate.
Surveillance is integral to communication spheres as both a
primary producer of data and a regulatory instrument. All information is
monitored through Information Surveillance as purchases and
communications are monitored by the U.S. government for national security purposes. Information Surveillance activities are made public
after the activities and patterns of society and business are monitored,
recorded, and then selectively reported to Classic Information Sources
through Information Surveillance agents. This is a major information
channel in the development of CIS news stories. Of course, CIS make their
own observations and research to supplement intelligence reports.
Information Surveillance (here, the FCC) then regulates what Classic
Information Sources report back to society.
Additionally, searches within the Modern Information
Proliferation are monitored along with the content made available and its
author. Purchase and income data reveal financial activity such as items
purchased, home and business locations, employer(s), travel, business
contacts, and even hint at religious and political orientations. All of this is
organized into massive databases maintained by the government and
kept in secrecy under Pentagon authority. Corporations also use
commercial databases that are constructed and maintained by private
surveillance enterprises, often used to better understand and target
individuals in respective markets.
Public awareness pertaining to the extent of government
surveillance is limited, as most of the programs operate below the public’s
radar. There are at least 12 large-scale data mining and/or databasing
operations currently in different departments the U.S. government. 12 One
such program, the Total Information Act (TIA), aims to build a centralized
database containing private transactional data on all Americans, including
“records on credit-card purchases, plane flights, e-mails, websites, [and]
housing.” 13 The TIA was denied funding in 2003 due to public objection –
only to go “underground” with funding directly from the Pentagon. There
is no denial that “TIA-like activities could be continued to be pursued outside the public’s view,” 14 as reported in the Department of Defense
Appropriations Act (2003).
Government surveillance and information monitoring are
processes that the government justifies as a means to increase security,
often using information data mining. Data mining identifies dangerous
patterns of activity and communication in an attempt to proactively deter
crimes. Video surveillance puts a face to the data (and the voices) - faces
that are databased themselves. It may be impossible to know the extent
of U.S. surveillance operations; nevertheless, 57% of Americans feel that
the government is ‘using expanded surveillance powers in a proper
The government discloses intelligence reports resulting from surveillance at its own discretion, with no accountability for complete
disclosure by citing reasons of national security. We cannot know the true
effectiveness of surveillance because our government has no legal
responsibility to disclose infractions, errors, or inaccuracies in their
practices. Furthermore, the agents who control the disclosure of
surveillance information remain anonymous under the shelter of the
Pentagon. The problem with surveillance is that a small group has
authority to monitor and evaluate the larger population using secret
criteria to classify and separate the population into possibly problematic groups.
Developing balanced moral principles becomes difficult when we
are only exposed to extreme and dramatic cases. As a society we have
become accustomed to observing compromised values in our daily lives. Truly shocking issues and events attract the most attention, and every
time we cross a new moral threshold the media covers the story so in-
depth that the extreme case becomes routine. Our awareness and
knowledge of an issue can eclipse our personal experiences, resulting in
untested, vicarious values.
We must contrast media sensationalization with normal behavior
to understand the extremeness of the case. Our moral simplicity needs to
be nurtured and safeguarded by sticking to well developed principles, and
those principles must be grounded in the activities of real life. 16 Only then
can we use these principles to identify moral dilemmas and evaluate the
facts surrounding the issue. It cannot be assumed that information
sources operate with transparency and full disclosure when it is
advantageous for the producer to have more knowledge than the
For example, e-mail spam continues to be a nuisance to all e-mail
users because of information selling practices. Most online purchases
require an e-mail address from the customer. Usually there will be a
find a lengthy document in legal language that basically informs
customers that their credit card number is the only information that they
will not sell. Most assume that the lengthy contract must assure privacy
and forgo reading it, and even if they do read it they are unlikely to
comprehend. This assumption turns out to be a fallacy when the
customer’s e-mail account starts to fill with spam.
This is the simple, everyday experience that allows the customer
to evaluate the appeal of internet shopping. A solution will come from
analyzing the facts in light of personal moral principles. The dilemma is
that online shopping is useful and effortless, but the websites cannot be trusted with personal information which is necessary for the transaction.
After evaluating the facts and implications, a solution could be to create a
spam e-mail account to be used when making online purchases, an
customer ignorance have little motivation to educate. Businesses aren’t
the only entities that benefit from ignorance; the government maintains a
great deal of control by operating in secrecy.
Just as personal information is vulnerable to companies who wish
to profit from it, our daily lives are vulnerable to scrutiny and evaluation
through Information Surveillance. Our government benefits from
gathering transactional data and personal communication so that it can
better monitor its citizens. The popular justification is for increased
terrorism protection, but a side effect is indiscriminate scrutiny and the
labeling of individuals as dangerous or threatening. These evaluations are
often made by computer algorithms based on rigid equations of suspicion
and even coincidence of names. According to the theory of moral
development, these processes cannot be ethical because there are no
reevaluations, self-reflections or ability to adapt. Data mining computer
programming therefore utilizes the goal of optimization, using rules
instead of principles, a process where there is no opportunity for review,
and unfair for persecution.
We cannot allow algorithms and sets of rules to classify people as
belonging to a dangerous class. This is no more than an agreement about
which principles are ‘wrong’ and also requires huge amounts of resources
to comb through raw data. These processes do uncover true threats, but
the rigidity of the process allows for false positives and undeserved
labeling. With increased faith in surveillance and data mining our society
loses trust in neighbors and communities to look after one another. All of
these issues deter an environment of virtue ethics as individuals are
deprived of opportunities to develop their own sovereign values.
Segregating and classifying individuals according to past behavior confines
them to a status quo, discouraging flexibility and change. As discussed
earlier, moral development is a dynamic process, and using rigid
guidelines to evaluate or predict moral behavior is very conflicting.
Considering the spam example, is there a way for our society to
keep our lives from unwanted intrusion? Preventing the intrusion of loud,
biased sources into moral principle development requires awareness and
criticality. If surveillance is that intrusion, then we should try and find a
way to lessen the impact and reclaim some control, again, through
awareness and deliberation. Like creating a separate e-mail account for
spam, we can choose to transfer our security safeguards into our own
hands as individuals and community members. Increased information
processing capabilities will guarantee ongoing and increasing surveillance.
However, if members of society are competent in protecting one another,
surveillance will become less justifiable and lose some influence.
Taking security into one’s own hands is a huge responsibility. We
will always need our government to defend us from attack, but we should
maintain the democratic belief that we have the ability to govern
ourselves and be free from oppression of a higher power. This belief is
important if we do not want to become subordinate to the rule-makers,
which hinders self reflection and true moral development. If we evaluate
the information we receive in light of its sources, motives, and accuracy,
we can then reflect on the implications and arrive at the decision that promotes justice and represents our collective commitment to treat
There are duties required for moral development to occur when
using virtue ethics, as it is an active process. Every member of society has
a duty to be critical of the information given to them, the information
they seek out, and the information they provide. The next duty is to use
self reflection after genuinely debating the issue to form moral principles,
and to continually build upon them. People need to think for themselves
to prevent being taken advantage of and consequently developing a need
to be protected, or developing media dependency.
A Genuine Debate
When we are evaluating the facts (or non-facts) on which we base
our decisions, we must ensure that we have diverse information by
investigating opposing viewpoints. The opposing arguments must be truly
considered in the spirit of good will, which is the capability to give ground
when a better argument is presented. 17 This fairness to disagreement is
A common motive for expressing ones viewpoint is to elicit a
response. When a source claims that ‘something is being done’ they
usually have a recommendation for further action. Biased sources display
moral exclusiveness, creating an environment where only one viewpoint
can exist. Instead of adopting prevalent, ‘louder’ values, an ethical
decision-maker will allow many sources fairness in opinion, and evaluate
the issue after reflecting on differing information. The goal of ethical
thinking is therefore to develop principles supporting what should be
done, instead of reacting to what is being done.
With so many sources available, credibility can be difficult to
evaluate. It is generally accepted that FoxNews is conservative, while CNN
is more liberal. Both are monitored closely for accuracy, but each deliver a
very different opinion on the same issue. Because what they say is
accurate, some bias comes from what information they are not providing.
In this example, a solution is as simple as flipping between the two
channels to diversify sources. Nonetheless, both still neglect certain
information. A solution could be a ‘source of sources,’ organized by issue,
providing diverse opinions.
Even when there is a conscious effort to consider opposing
arguments, bias can still be imputed by false or unverifiable information.
One way to measure credibility is to measure concurrent sources, and
investigate citied references. The assumption is that with more citations
there is better fair representation. Also, certain sources are more reliable
than others, so citing those sources increases dependability. Wikipedia is
careful to verify its content, and warns users when there is little support
for certain information:
This section does not cite any references or sources. Please improve
this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unverifiable material
may be challenged and removed. (tagged since September 2007)
Along these lines, another solution could be an entity where louder (CIS)
sources are required to submit citations. Inclined individuals could
investigate opinions to gain insight into the types of sources being used.
There could also be an intrinsic effect on loud sources to be more careful and critical of their own citations, as well as a push to incorporate more diverse opinions into their own information.
Besides the FCC, there are already great watchdog organizations
in existence such as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and
TheSmokingGun.com. FAIR has been challenging media bias & censorship
since 1986, and tackles issues regarding credibility and media influence. 18
These sites need more support to compete with the loudness of the
sources they monitor and increase awareness.
Most of all, responsibility falls upon the end user. Awareness of
media bias is growing as we are all deafened by one-sided opinions.
Awareness will help to keep information sources in check and promote
better fair representation. Bias will never disappear, but we can fight fire
with fire by developing independent biases that reflect our own sovereign
1. Severson, Richard J. (1997). The Principle of Information Ethics. New
York: M.E. Sharp.
2. Davenport, Thomas H; Beck, John C. (2001). The Attention Economy:
Understanding the New Currency of Business. Harvard Business School
3. Wikipedia. [n.d]. Media Bias. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from
4. Herr, Norman. (2007, May 20). Television & Health. Sourcebook for
5. [n.d.] Percent of Households with Internet Access. Retrieved October 16,
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6. [n.d.] U.S. Daily Newspaper Circulation. Retrieved October 16, 2007
7. Donohew, Lewis; Palmgreen, Philip; and Duncan, J. (1980). Activation
Theory of Information Exposure. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from
8. Ball-Rokeach, Sandra; DeFleur, Melvin. (1976). Media Dependency
Theory. Retrieved November 1, 2007, from
9. Frey, James. (2004, May 11). A Million Little Pieces. Anchor Books, New
10. CNN Reliable Sources. (2006, January 29). Oprah Apologizes; The
Selling of Spying. Retrieved October 17, 2007 from
11. (2007, October 1). Critical Evaluation of Resources. University of
California Berkeley Library. Retrieved October 14, 2007, from
12. Anderson, Shannon R. [n.d.]. Total Information Awareness and Beyond.Retrieved October 14, 2007, from http://www.bordc.org /threats/data-mining.pdf
13. Ibid 12.
14. (2003). Department of Defense Appropriations Act. Pub. L. No. 108-87
§ 8131, 117, Stat. 1054, 1102.
15. Harris Interactive. (2006, February 24). The Harris Poll, #19. Retrieved
October 14, 2007, from
16. Ibid 1.