The pervasive bias that envelops us all
News is a matter of selection — we can read only what writers and editors choose to publish. But regardless of what outlet you’re reading, from the most massive newsgathering operation to the smallest blogger, you’re not getting the whole story. Why? Because of unspoken biases that we all accept.
I want to be clear here: I am not demonizing reporters, most of whom work hard to get at and reveal truths that we don’t know about. But there are patterns in what they leave out, and we are all blind to them. Like these:
- Attention bias. All media needs readers. And especially in today’s clickbait-competitive world, getting readers means saying something interesting. So we read that there’s a “Dramatic Rise in the Number of Global Executions” because the headline writer can make it sound dramatic. But you’ll never read a headline like “Police didn’t shoot anyone today” or “Most people stay in their jobs from year to year,” because those would not be click-worthy.
- Story bias. News stories are, well, stories. People are hardwired to read and remember stories. That’s why the political news is always written like this: “Front-Runners Enter Treacherous Terrain With Wisconsin Primary Losses.” But stories are not always the truth — they emphasize dramatic turns, narratives, and personalities. This bias is so ingrained that we can hardly escape it — we, and the media that writes for us, imagine that life is made up of stories. What would a non-story article even look like: “Ted Cruz wins Wisconsin with 48% — gets more votes than others in one state”? Who would read that? Who would write that? But as a result of story bias, facts that don’t fit the story get left out, and we never see them.
- Recency bias. It’s called news — it has to be new. If it just happened, it prints. If a reporter discovers something that happened a few days or weeks ago, you’ll never read it — unless they can integrate it into a story about what’s happening today.
- “It’s not over” bias. Writers need to keep your attention for tomorrow. Stories about Sanders’ momentum keep alive the idea that he could still win, even if it’s statistically not that likely. So you’re more likely to read a story about the continuing fight than one that says “You know what, the race is pretty much over, go read something else.”
- Famous people bias. Unknown people do interesting things every day. A few get in the paper. The rest don’t. You’re reading a lot more about Gwyneth Paltrow and Elon Musk and a lot less about some graduate student who just figured out a problem that will impact all of us 15 years from now — because nobody knows about the graduate student. Just read any non-famous person’s obituary — everyone is the star of their own life, and everyone’s life has interesting things in it.
- Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is real — we all unconsciously prioritize evidence that backs up our preconceptions. How does it affect news? Reporters develop an idea of how the world works. When what they find reinforces that view, they write it — “The continuing story of police corruption in Chicago.” When events don’t fit the idea, we don’t read them . . . until so much evidence builds up that you read the counter-story: “Surprising facts contradict what everyone thought.”
- Balance bias. Facts are facts, even if some people disagree with them. In the attempt to present a balanced viewpoint, reporters give ink to those who disagree with the obvious.
Surprisingly, this is not a media critique — I don’t expect things to change, nor do I want them to change. I don’t think these biases are even possible to change. What needs to change is you. When you read something, think about these biases. Ask what’s been left out. When you hear something that doesn’t fit the story, follow up. You just might learn something that everyone else has been missing.
The devolution of Media as Agenda-Setter means that each of us, as news consumers, have more responsibility to understand these biases, and keep our news diet balanced.
Recency bias makes me think of one of my biggest irritants: websites that do not date their pieces. I find it hard to trust a site that doesn’t make clear when the post/article was written.
Without clear dates, everything seems to be “recent.”
All very important things for readers and authors to remember. Thanks for aggregating them into one list.
I find the Flipboard app helpful for uncovering articles I wouldn’t have run across naturally. It’s brought me to new publications, new authors, and new perspectives that made me question my own thinking.