Thoughts on Bias and Objectivity in the Media

A conservative friend of mine sent me this link to a Ben Shapiro column about the media response to the Islamist terror attack in New York this week (the guy who ran down a bunch of pedestrians with a truck).

He asked me if I thought the argument in the column was a good one.

Shapiro makes a point about double standards in the media with respect to the treatment of terror attacks from homegrown white supremacists vs Islamist jihadis.

We’re quick to blame white supremacist ideology in the former case but afraid to make a connection to Islamic religious ideology in the latter case.

Shapiro infers that the double-standard is due to bias in liberal media.

I said sure, I think the argument is good to the extent that it points out differences in media descriptions of events that one can interpret as guilty of double standards.

However, I don’t tend to get very agitated by biased media interpretations of news events.

Why? Because this is exactly how I expect them to behave.

This sounds cynical I know, but I really don’t intend it to be.

Here are four principles for which I believe there is compelling evidence in the psychological and sociological literature on reasoning. They inform how I interpret news and media information.

  1. Confirmation bias, or “myside” bias, is a natural part of our cognitive makeup. When we’re trying to persuade others of a position, or justify our beliefs and behavior to others, we’re naturally inclined to notice, seek out, and interpret information in ways that support our position, and forget, dismiss or reject information that runs counter to our position.
  2. On the other hand, our reasoning faculties are sharper when we’re scrutinizing the behavior and arguments of others who are trying to persuade us. We’re better at spotting inconsistencies in the reasoning of others than in our own reasoning. We judge the reasoning of others by a more critical standard than we do our own. We look for counterexamples to the arguments of others when we fail to look for them in our own reasoning. And so on.
  3. These asymmetries in the quality of our reasoning are reinforced in public media communication on topics that are judged to be partisan, in the sense that declaring your support of one side or another signals your membership in particular cultural groups (in-group / out-group status). Partisan affiliation creates additional motivations to arrive at a particular conclusion, the conclusion that is regarded as the “correct” one by your cultural tribe.
  4. Most of the news items and information sources we’re exposed to in the media are generated by individuals and organizations that are not only politically partisan, but largely homogeneous, in the sense that workers within those organizations largely share the same political and cultural worldview.

Question: Given these principles, what would you expect to see in media coverage of news events?

Answer: You would expect to see exactly what we do see.

I expect to see Ben Shapiro and other conservative spokespersons spot inconsistencies and biases in liberal media depictions of events.

I expect to see liberal media spokespersons spot inconsistencies and biases in conservative media depictions.

I expect each side to ignore, reject or deflect these charges of inconsistency and bias when raised against them from the other side.

Does this sound cynical? Maybe. But these facts also point to a fifth principle, which offers some hope.

5. Our ability to reason well is maximized when we reason together, in politically and culturally diverse groups, toward a common goal (the truth on some issue, the best policy on some topic, etc.). Under these conditions, the asymmetries in our reasoning ability are leveraged in our favor, and the quality of our collective reasoning shoots up.

In such groups, consensus is not as easily achieved, but that’s where having some procedural rules for decision-making can be helpful, when decisions have to be made, or positions adopted.

This isn’t a fantasy world. We do this with other institutions of learning and decision-making all the time — reputable scientific organizations, medical organizations, legal organizations, etc.

None of these institutions are free of partisan bias, but they’re not as homogeneously partisan as the most prominent news media organizations today.

Finally, I caution against looking for “objective” media sources as a solution to this problem. Every side claims objectivity, and your favored list of objective sources will be criticized as partisan by others.

The only solution I see is collaborative communities of individuals from different political and cultural orientations who see the value of critical engagement among themselves and within the community, who can distinguish criticism of an argument from criticism of a person, and who are willing to share their reasoning and resulting positions alongside the positions of other members of the community, with the public (via jointly authored articles, for example).

This doesn’t sound like a crazy notion to me.

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