Bias and the Media

Let’s talk about the media. And let’s talk about bias. Certainly those two words have been tossed around a lot these days, mixed and matched in different ways by different sources who blame either mainstream or new media for the misrepresentation of public opinion…

Rather than focus on ways that the media is biased, as a psychologist, I’d like to focus on a different source of bias in our interactions with the media. That bias comes from us as perceivers. We may be seeing bias as something that exists out in the world when in fact, it exists inside our own mind.

In my last post, I outlined how humans are motivated to protect their personal sense of value. But our sense of value and worth comes from multiple sources. Social identities are ways we perceive ourselves as members of groups. Some identities are centrally meaningful to us, whereas others are category labels that may apply to the self without provoking attachment or identification. Just as we have a motivation to protect our sense of personal worth, we have a motivation to protect the image, esteem, or value of the groups that are important to us. This has important implications.

One implication is called the Hostile Media bias, which is the tendency to perceive that objectively neutral media coverage on a controversial issue is hostile to our side. For example, objective media coverage of an election debate may be perceived as anti-Republican by Republicans, and simultaneously as anti-Democrat by Democrats. This perceived hostility results because we are highly attentive to criticism of our group, and because we are irritated that the report gives voice to an alternative view – one which we perceive as unfair or incorrect. In this case, the media is objectively balanced, but we can’t see it that way because it doesn’t adequately promote the righteousness of our group.

Perceiver bias that’s rooted in social identity doesn’t stop there. We are also more receptive to arguments or proposals that come from our own groups, while being especially antagonistic to arguments that come from the other side. Research conducted in Israel, for example, showed that Israeli Jews devalued an Israeli/Palestinian peace plan that was actually authored by the Israeli government when they were told that it was authored by Palestinians. Similarly, both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs devalued a plan that was described as coming from the other side. More generally, it seems that we trust information that comes from our own groups, and we devalue information that comes from outside. In the age of social media, we may be tricked into agreeing or disagreeing with a particular proposal or issue, just because someone created a meme that attributed the idea to a particular side.

And once again, the problem doesn’t stop there. It’s clear that we don’t like news coverage which is actually fair and balanced – so long as our identity is involved, we won’t consider it fair or balanced. We do, however, like news which comes from “our side” – this may be the reason that Partisans prefer the news source they do, with liberals preferring Slate or CNN, while conservatives prefer Breitbart or Fox News. We like to hear news that fits our own perception of the world, and we feel uncomfortable when our view is challenged. This is called confirmation bias.confirmation-bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information which confirms our existing views, and to disregard or ignore information which contradicts it. This again is why we may be tricked by false news that aligns with our preexisting views of people or policies.

These days rather than watching conventional news programs, many of us select opinion-oriented or interpretation-oriented shows. Here the focus is more on building an argument aligned with our own ideological position than it is with presenting different sides of an issue. Tomi Lahren and Stephen Colbert, for example, report a passionate or satirical interpretation of the news. The show that sits comfortably with us doesn’t necessarily do so because it’s right, but because it confirms our own interpretation of reality. It feels comfortable to us. It reinforces what we already suspected (or wanted) to be true.

Here’s the thing… sometimes the argument that someone on our side is making is, well… crap. If the argument isn’t centrally relevant to our group, we probably won’t even notice. The reason is that we don’t spend a lot of effort or energy thinking about all the news that bombards us throughout the day. Stuff that comes from our side, because we intuitively trust it, we’ll agree with without much thought. Stuff from the other side, which we are mistrustful of, we can dismiss likewise without thought. When a message is centrally relevant to our group though, we’ll think about it much more closely… so long as it comes from someone in our group. In this case, we’ll agree with a message from our side when it’s strong and compelling, but dismiss it when it’s weak. This suggests that we’re paying careful attention and thinking deeply about the message – we notice when it’s valid or invalid. We won’t devote the same energy to a message presented from the other side though, often dismissing it out of hand without considering deeply the value of the argument. Ignoring messages from the other side helps protect our pre-existing views, as well as the felt value of our group, at least relative to the other side. After all, we don’t have to see our side as wrong if we’re not willing to deeply consider an alternative perspective.

The more we elect to receive our news from partisan sources, the more polarized our view of the world may become. Take a look at these graphics created by the Wall Street Journal which show the differences in what highly identified Republicans vs. Democrats see in their facebook news feeds. These feeds seem to represent two alternate universes, rather than the a single country that houses a diversity of people and ideas. It’s a shame, actually, if we’re only exposed to one side, because it means that at a minimum, we’ll be blind to the reality of life experienced by those who share the world – or perhaps the neighborhood – with us. This may be part of the reason many Democrats were blindsided by the outcome of the 2016 election, they failed to notice the perspective and strength of a large contingent of the country. Perhaps we all need to do a better job of knowing what other people in the world actually think. It’s a fallacy to expect that they all think as we do, no matter how red or blue our own newsfeed appears.

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If you want to try to reduce your own bias in the way you interpret the media or political action, it’s important to both (1) be critical and conscientious in the way we receive news or information that comes from BOTH our side and the other side, and (2) explicitly seek outsider sources of information. This ensures we’re exposed to arguments or information that we might otherwise avoid, even if you ultimately dismiss it, it’s good to know what message is reaching the other side.

But to truly be a critical consumer, we need to step away from our identities, detaching in a way that allows us to depersonalize information (assuming that the information doesn’t have a direct effect on us as individuals). This helps to control the “modifications of the mind” by removing self or social-identity protective bias. It’s a point on which Eastern and Western science of the mind agree, though they also agree that it’s easier said than done. Bias is insidious. It works hard to convince us that it lives somewhere else – in the media, in the other group, or in society at large. It may live there, but make no mistake, it also lives in your mind.

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