On Admitting Bias

One of the things that I like most about internet writing is that it doesn’t attempt to insult readers’ intelligence by claiming to be unbiased. Unlike newspapers, good writing that you find online almost always credits its audience with having enough intelligence to understand the tinted view of its author with the hope that the person reading it will seek out other sources of opinion before forming their own.

Authoritative voices on any subject, even one as ultimately meaningless as baseball, are usually only considered authoritative to themselves. No matter how conscientious or neutral a writer may try to be, his or her biases will always shape their work. Pretending that it doesn’t is a mistaken attempt at creating an authoritative voice.

All of this is a means of introducing the tête-à-tête between blogger The Tao of Stieb and Grantland writer Chris Jones that you can find here. The two well worded individuals lay out their respective biases before getting into the nitty gritty of their thoughts on The Article Which Shall Not Be Linked, which accuses the Toronto Blue Jays of using a man in white sitting in right center field at Rogers Centre to signal what pitches are coming to batters 400+ feet away.

I don’t think anyone’s opinion is likely to be altered by reading the two sides duke it out, but it’s refreshing to come across two grown ups discussing something that has raised some very volatile reactions. The most interesting part of the whole exercise is that it reminds us that the original ESPN piece as well as all of the written criticisms of it, would have done well to state their biases and write a little bit about the impetus for writing what ended up being published, both in terms of the attempted authoritative magazine voice, and the bias wielding blogging voice.

Comments (9)

  1. I only have one thing to add to this whole issue.

    I thought, how often is there a camera BEHIND home plate that can look out at the pitcher as he pitches. We see pitchers in the opposite way. So, where could we find video. Then I remembered the Bautista 50th home run video was from a guy right behind home plate.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dX_CV4H0oU

    I didn’t see anything. Did you?

  2. A good thing to ask yourself when you accuse someone (or something) of bias is, “why would a bias exist?” In this case, what axe to grind do Nelson and Keating have with the Blue Jays? I love the Jays, but I have to ask why an american magazine would go out and intentionally slag a 4th place nothing team. This would have been a far bigger story had it been wortten about any other team in baseball. Similarly, why would the White Sox, a team outside out division, make up ostensibly ridiculous stories about the Jays? Why would other teams throw up multiple sets of signs against the Jays with nobody on base, unless they believe sign stealing was going on outside the field of play? While a lot of commenters seem to think there is some great anti-Canadian sentiment in the US media, I think the truth is that they don’t think of us at all, and won’t even start thinking about the blue jays until we start winning games.

    The only real bias having anything to do with this story, is the bias coming out of the Toronto blogosphere. I read the Tao interview with great interest, since for the first time one of the Jays bloggers had to sit down with an interlocutor who was not already converted to the Toronto cause, and so the Tao put aside the rhetoric and outrage and instead grappled with the facts. This is why the interview is excellent.

    While I’m still not persuaded that any cheating was going on, it is clear from the Tao piece that the Nelson/Keating article isn’t nearly as idiotic as was being suggested, and that this is an issue that reasonable people can disagree on. Even Keith Law, who is mostly (not always) fawned over on the Toronto blogs, says he is impresed by the article. When he says the story has legs, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it.

  3. What really strikes me about the ESPN article, and the whole story coming from the White Sox bullpen, is (as has been pointed out by a number of people) the fact that Bautista was still an absolute nobody, especially concerning home runs, in April of 2010, when someone from the Sox supposedly told him that it’s “not too easy” to hit home runs without stealing signs. My reaction on reading that is that someone tried to add details to a story after the fact, and didn’t think it through all that carefully. That Nelson and Keating open their article with that anecdote is, to me, telling.

  4. You know, ultimately, a reporter is supposed to report. That’s all that happened. Some sources indicated something, an article reported it. That is an alright basis for writing the article. The problem was that it was a shitty article as it didn’t come from proper perspective.

  5. The other thing is how Nelson and Keating throw in the Russell Martin bit about the Jays stealing signs from second as if that’s all part of the same issue. As far as I understand, stealing signs from second is part of the game, whereas men in white sitting in centerfield relaying signals to batters isn’t. Where they so short on anecdotal evidence that they had to start including stories that aren’t totally relevant?

  6. “While a lot of commenters seem to think there is some great anti-Canadian sentiment in the US media, I think the truth is that they don’t think of us at all,”

    The issue is more that ESPN loses (virtually) nothing by attacking the Jays. They’re an easy target, since if they piss off the Jays fanbase they feel no repercussions. I don’t really blame them – that’s their business model. Sort of the same way they virtually ignore the NHL because they don’t have the TV rights (but give much larger amounts of coverage to MLS, which they have an association with). It may not be proper journalism, but from a business perspective it makes sense.

    Now, I don’t think the article was biased, except in the whole “Jose Bautista is somehow cheating and we have to come up with new ways to say so every year to allow Tony and Wilbon to yell about something on PTI” sense that leads to a lot of ESPN’s idiotic excesses. They love nothing more than to make themselves the story, and this is another example. If the Jays were an American team, would they get more deference? Maybe.

    But beyond that, it’s just a poorly written article (given that the “scheme” to steal signs doesn’t make much sense) whose numbers were OBVIOUSLY cherry-picked to prove a point since none of the statistics discussed since then were even hinted at in the report.

  7. “The issue is more that ESPN loses (virtually) nothing by attacking the Jays.”

    Simply untrue. On the internet, a click is a click, traffic is traffic, no matter where it comes from. And a lot of traffic comes from Canada.

    ESPN has more to lose by alienating an entire country than many American cities. I promise, whatever their business model is, its not to alienate foreigners.

    We need to lose this “little brother” complex. No one’s picking on us because we’re small and Canadian. While the story was worth writing, it wasn’t particularly good. That’s it.

  8. “On the internet, a click is a click, traffic is traffic, no matter where it comes from. And a lot of traffic comes from Canada.”

    Depends where the advertisers on their site come from, and whether they’re geographically targeted. For instance, the banner on the NFL page, while ostensibly a generic Adidas ad, takes a clicker to Dick’s Sporting Goods – a chain that doesn’t give one rat’s ass about Canadian traffic since they neither ship to Canada nor have (as far as I know) any market presence here. If no Canadians vistied the site, Dick’s would lose nothing, but presumably wouldn’t care, and nor would ESPN; losing Canadian traffic hurts as much as not having anyone from North Korea viewing the ad.

    (Caveat: some ads are geographically-agnostic, like the Heineken one that plugs their facebook page, but it’s still US-targeted)

    While it’s nice for ESPN’s traffic numbers, in terms of actual money they likely lose nothing by aggravating Canada. At least, if the companies advertising on their site have any brains and look at the geographic origins of the traffic numbers when paying ESPN’s ad rates.

  9. Didn’t mean to take the discussion to this topic, but your theory that ESPN (and presumably all other American web sites) “likely” get no advertising revenue from Canadian web viewers (and therfore losses nothing from alienating us) seems very unlikely to me.

    If true though, you’ve got a hell of a business opportunity on your hands.

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