Saturday, December 4, 2010

ProCon.org: Fair and Balanced?

I've been looking at ProCon.org as a site to recommend to students for research.  I know that some librarians think that it's biased.  Kevin Arthur, on his blog, Question Technology, has a post that sums up Rory Litwin's Library Juice posting about ProCon.org, as well as a response from one of the ProCon.org editors.  My thoughts?

For those of us who don't have access (read "money") to paid viewpoint databases, like Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center or CQ Researcher, ProCon.org is a worthwhile free alternative. Is it perfect?  No, but not mainly, in my opinion, because of bias.  I think the charges of bias come about because ProCon.org isn't very standardized or clear in its approach to issues.  For instance, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict section has many resources, and is well-organized on its homepage. While I haven't read every document in this section, those that I have read seem unbiased.  But the main problem with this section is that the conflict itself -- why these two countries are fighting -- is not explained from the beginning.  The reader has to dig around and glean this information from various pages within the section.  Those unfamiliar with the history of this conflict, i.e., most undergraduates, won't take away much from this section, because they won't understand why there is a conflict to begin with.  That said, this section is a treasure-trove of resources and original documents, and as such can be highly recommended for that if nothing else.

The Abortion section is well done, and fairly free from bias, but it's skimpy compared to the above-mentioned section, and there are some things I don't care for.  It's never a good idea to put groups' names in quotes, because seeing "pro-choice" and "pro-life" throughout the section implies a strange bias against calling these groups those names.  If your site is unbiased, presenting each side's viewpoint (which is done quite well here), and if those are the names the groups use for themselves, why the quotes?  The videos at the bottom are interesting, but putting them there makes them seem more important than they are.  Only one, of "The Silent Scream," has major historical significance in the abortion debate.  Like the section on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the Abortion section doesn't present the topic itself very clearly from the beginning.  This section could use more information and more organization.  Abortion should have been defined, the various types of abortions and the legal restrictions on them presented, religious views on abortion presented more clearly, names of major pro-choice and pro-life organizations given, along with links to their sites, and so on, in an organized manner.

And that's my main gripe with the site: its format.  Many of the charges of bias could be dismissed if the site had each issue organized in the same way, something that paid databases (see above) are careful to do.  Rory Litkin is right that "Is the ACLU Good for America?" can be a loaded question, but any question framed for debate is, and I am hesitant to accuse ProCon.org of intentional bias.  Resources like CQ Researcher use very similar questions; see here for their issue on Internet Accuracy, which poses the question "Is information on the Web reliable?"  The reason that CQ Researcher is so good is that it is thoroughly researched and well-written, and that its articles follow the same format, forcing the authors and editors to standardize their approach to topics and avoid appearance of bias.  In fact, I'm putting the Internet Accuracy report on my acquisitions list for the new year, and hope to use it in information literacy instruction, but in the meantime, I'll recommend ProCon.org, with caveats, as a site for research.

UPDATE: Kamy Akhavan, President and Managing Editor of ProCon.org, sent me an email today, commenting on my post above, and I'm printing here with his permission:


I read your blog post regarding ProCon.org with great interest. You have given us some valuable constructive criticism, and I appreciate your taking the time to review the website.


If I may, I’d like to address your criticisms one by one to make sure I understand them and to see if you can help us improve.

1. www.israelipalestinian.procon.org – “main problem with this section is that the conflict itself -- why these two countries are fighting -- is not explained from the beginning”

We typically frame the debates we explore in the first paragraph on the issue website homepage. After re-reading the introduction on Israeli-Palestinian ProCon.org, I think your observation is completely fair. I will be working with our primary researcher on this topic to re-write that introduction. I really appreciate this criticism. I personally reviewed all our other introductions to see if they were clear, and I think you happened to hone in on the one outlier. Just my luck. In any case, if you find other introductions that you feel insufficiently frame the debate, please let us know.


2. www.abortion.procon.org – “It's never a good idea to put groups' names in quotes, because seeing ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ throughout the section implies a strange bias against calling these groups those names”

In our effort to avoid the perception of bias we have may have gone too far. The use of quotation marks was implemented out of caution, but now that you mention it they do seem unnecessary. After internal deliberation, we have decided to change “pro-life” to pro-life and “pro-choice” to pro-choice throughout the website. Those changes should be completed in the next couple of days.


3. www.abortion.procon.org – “Abortion should have been defined, the various types of abortions and the legal restrictions on them presented, religious views on abortion presented more clearly, names of major pro-choice and pro-life organizations given, along with links to their sites, and so on, in an organized manner”

I’m afraid I don’t understand this remark. We did define the various types of abortion and their frequency along with legal restrictions on them. We listed religious views on abortion, and we included names of numerous prominent pro-choice and pro-life organizations - and not only did we link to their websites but we produced a brief biography of each as well.


4. General – “Many of the charges of bias could be dismissed if the site had each issue organized in the same way, something that paid databases (see above) are careful to do.”

ProCon.org has two types of sites – standard and micro. Standard sites usually require over 1,500 hours to create, and they are absolutely uniform in their presentation, protocols, and key elements. Micro sites usually take fewer than 300 hours to build, are therefore less robust, and adhere to a different set of organizational rules. We have numerous internal policies and a multi-person checklist to ensure compliance with these standards.

The Israeli-Palestinian ProCon.org website is a standard website, and although similar to Abortion ProCon.org, a micro website, in several elements, they adhere to different sets of organizational rules. We’ve tried to explain these differences in our FAQ page and we’ve included a link to the term micro or standard (whichever applies) on the top right of each ProCon.org website.

Were you aware of the two different types of sites we produce? Did you find any inconsistencies within standard websites or within micro websites? Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the presentation of either?

Please note that I have CC’ed our primary researchers on the Israeli-Palestinian ProCon.org and Abortion ProCon.org websites.

I’d love to communicate you further about ProCon.org and how we can improve and make our site more useful to librarians, students, and the general public. Would you mind?

Thanks again for taking the time to offer your constructive criticisms and for helping to make ProCon.org better.

My thanks to ProCon.org for their response, and their remarkable willingness to adapt to users' needs.  My reply later tonight ...