“Nonpartisan”: It does not mean what we appear to think it means

So…I’ve been reading and decoding a lot of “About Us” pages this week, and been reflecting again on the many ways those pages are so often written to intentionally obscure more than they clarify.

Quite a few organizations I have been investigating use my least favorite word to describe their work: “nonpartisan.” To be sure we are all on the same page, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines nonpartisan as: “not partisan; especially : free from party affiliation, bias, or designation.”

I include the definition because far-and-away the most common reason students give for picking a source on a politicized topic is that it is “unbiased.” (No matter how many times we cover that there is no such thing as an unbiased source.) When I ask students how they arrived at that conclusion, they show me the word “nonpartisan” boldly dispatched in among the buzzwords on the About Us page — on every kind of site, from every point on the political landscape. Seeing that word seems to undo anything else students learn about the organization, such as by reading its Wikipedia page or talk page, reviews, etc.

At this point, I am absolutely convinced that most media, opinion, and think tank organizations find some way to shoehorn the term “nonpartisan” into their self-descriptions, specifically because they intend to use common misunderstanding of the word to mislead readers about their positionality and agenda. Even if there are usages of the word that are not strictly about political party affiliation, I believe publishers calculate that inclusion of the term offers plausible deniability. They can make us feel they are neutral without actually making the claim of being neutral.

It is disingenuous, deceitful, and effective.

As a result, talking about that specific word has become a mainstay of my research skills curriculum. At this juncture, I feel like it is one of the most important tidbits I teach in unpacking construction of authority and evaluating sources.

So keep an eye out, and see all the ways that one little word is (mis)used. And let’s work to assure our students are not duped by it.

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