Articles on Wikipedia must conform to a neutral point of view, being neutral in both content and in form. Editors have had many successes in dealing with non-neutral content, by verifying facts to confirm that they are supported by reliable sources, ensuring that one viewpoint is not given undue weight and removing (or properly attributing) opinions. However, Wikipedia has greater difficulty with achieving neutrality in form, as it is not always obvious how the structure of an article can favor undue weight on a single perspective.
Some forms and structures, such as the use of "Criticism of..." or "Controversies regarding..." article titles or section headings often lead to disputes over point of view (POV). This essay suggests better practices to use in their place.
The structure of an article can result in emphasizing some information more than others, which has implications for due weight. For example, information that is placed at the beginning of an article (the lead) is inherently being emphasized more than information that is placed later. The same is true for placement of information within a sentence, paragraph, or section. On the other hand, placement at the end of a paragraph or section may be interpreted as a conclusion or the "last word", and readers may be more likely to remember it. Information in the middle of a paragraph or section is emphasized the least, especially when the paragraph or section is long, and may even be skipped entirely by some of the readers.
Since most people do not read the entire article, information earlier in the article is also more likely to be read, so earlier placement carries more weight for this reason as well. In fact, many people only read the lead, making the lead especially important for ensuring neutrality, and editors should make sure that the lead follows WP:LEAD and WP:SUMMARYSTYLE. Similarly, the order of sections in an article may hold implications for the relative importance of topics. In general, placing a section earlier may imply that it is more central to the overall subject of the article. Starting with "Definition" or "History" as the first section (after the lead) is usually neutral, but starting with "Criticism" is usually not. Different choices of ordering within a section or paragraph may also frame certain parts as rebuttals to other parts, and any such implications should be justified by the sources.
Additional forms of emphasis (which may or may not be warranted, as determined by due weight) include placing information in shorter paragraphs or image captions, where readers are more likely to notice it.
Using neutral subheadings
Even if the text of an article follows the NPOV guidelines, it is possible to introduce POV and bias into the headings. In some cases, articles about a famous singer or actor will have subheadings such as "Rise to fame", "Increasing acclaim" and "International superstardom". When one sees a sequence of subtitles like this, one wonders what is next–"Ascent to supreme glory"! In the case of the three subtitles presented previously, a neutral way of subtitling the sections of this singer or actor's article could be "1970s", "1980s" and "1990s". Another option could be to use neutral words that reference major structural points in the individual's life, such as "Early career", "London years" and "Move to Los Angeles".
POV in subheadings can also be negative in tone. For example, a rock singer's article would have POV in the subheadings if they read "Early career", "Criticism from music journalists" and "Fan backlash".
Organizations, governments, corporations, religions and living notable individuals are all constantly evolving and changing. When writing about a phenomenon that has changed over time, use a "History" section with chronological headings to present information in a neutral form.
Writing about an evolving concept in sections will allow readers to understand its evolution. This includes the initial intentions and reactions to the concept, how the concept changed as it impacted the world, and the current status of the concept. This also allows periods of extreme success or failure to be presented in a historic context.
Beware of editors who are opposed to writing about an evolving concept in a chronological structure. Some may intentionally do this so that one part of history can gain undue weight over another, to present that topic in its most negative or positive light. Even if done unintentionally, failing to distinguish between historic facts and current facts will make it difficult for readers to understand how a concept has changed over time.
In some cases, however, an article may be structured in a non-chronological structure for reasons that are not related to POV. For example, in the case of a celebrity who has worked professionally as a singer, actor and model, the article might have sections entitled "Singing", "Acting" and "Modeling." In this case, the use of a non-chronological structure is used to present the three different sides to the individual's career.
The following is a list of red flags that may help identify reasons why an article suffers from constant debate and POV-pushing. Not all red flags are indicative of a problem. This list should be taken as a way to begin a discussion, and find ways to change the fundamental form of an article to ensure a more neutral point of view.
"Criticism of..." articles
"Criticism of..." articles inherently focus on the negative aspects of a phenomenon. By virtue of its title, praise for that same phenomenon is out of place. One man's trash is another man's treasure, but the article is inherently designed to focus on the first man's opinion to the exclusion of the other man. It makes it difficult to represent "fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views", in accordance with the policy on neutral point of view. "Criticism of..." articles may be considered to be a WP:POV fork.
This is less of a problem for "criticism of..." sections within articles, but these may still lead to undue weight on the negative aspects of a phenomenon. Likewise, "praise of..." articles and sections may run into the same issues.
The best way to provide context is to re-frame the article, beginning with the topic. "Reception of..." allows praise and criticism to be provided in context with each other. Creating an article or section about a phenomenon's reception is not meant to be a complete list of all praise and criticism, but to provide readers with a representative sample of how that phenomenon has been received.
It is typically better to add context to criticism articles than to delete them. Consider revising "criticism" with a proportional amount of "praise", or up-merging the "criticism" back into the main article.
A related type of article or section is ones titled "Controversies regarding...". Where there is already an article on XYZ, creating a new article entitled "Controversies regarding XYZ" may be viewed as a POV fork. That said, there are some articles with this type of title, such as List of Wikipedia controversies. Creating a subsection within the article on XYZ entitled "Controversies" is also a potential problem, because it may still lead to undue weight on the negative aspects of the topic. In many cases, if there are noteworthy controversies that received significant and sustained media coverage during in a biographical figure's life or a company's history, these can briefly summarized in the biography or history as part of the general text.
Articles named after loaded terminology
One way to control a debate is to control the use of language. In George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the repressive government promotes "newspeak" as a language to control how its subjects talk about the world. In real-world politics, different parties use language to frame the parameters of the debate. This tactic of using "loaded language" has risen with the growing power of marketeers.
A notable example of this tactic is the debate over the legalization of abortion. Supporters of legal abortion describe themselves as "pro choice", thus allowing them to describe their opponents as being against choice. Critics of legal abortion describe themselves as "pro life", thus allowing them to describe their opponents as being against life. This difficulty can be avoided by side-stepping these labels, and writing articles about "support for the legalization of abortion" and "opposition to the legalization of abortion".
Wikipedia makes it a policy to avoid writing articles about neologisms and other terms invented recently. This is seldom an issue for new scientific terminology. It is more problematic for terminology popularized in the political arena, or around other public figures.
One solution would be to rename the article to a scientific term, or to use a short description to unpack the term. Another option is to merge the article about the term into a section of an article about the larger topic. If the term is sufficiently popular to write a full article about it from reliable sources, it is preferable to balance perspectives from sources that talk about the term, and avoid giving weight to sources that merely use the term.
Sections about a short-lived controversy
Wikipedia articles cover controversies. However, not all controversies are covered equally, and some not at all. It is sensible to cover a controversy when someone is accused of a crime and they are convicted. It is typically reasonable to cover criminal disputes even if someone is found to be innocent, if the trial became notable to reliable journalists and scholars. But in instances where a criminal accusation is found to be completely without merit, writing about it in Wikipedia may only give undue weight to a frivolous complaint.
This is even more difficult for writing about accusations that someone notable lied or behaved inappropriately. Journalists may spend several weeks examining a debate over whether someone lied, which inevitably leads to a discussion about the magnitude of that lie, and whether they should apologize. Ten different columns in newspapers does not mean that the incident should be covered in its own section, or at all.
When writing about a topic, only write about controversies that had a lasting impact.
- meta:2010 Wikimedia Study of Controversial Content
- Wikipedia:Avoid thread mode
- Wikipedia:BOLD, revert, discuss cycle
- Wikipedia:Don't teach the controversy (that phrase doesn't mean what you think it means)
- Wikipedia:List of controversial issues
- Wikipedia:NPOV tutorial#Accusations
- Wikipedia:Pro and con lists
- Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Words to watch
- Help:Talkspace draft