The thing about people, is that we are terribly susceptible to a thing called confirmation bias. When we have an idea or opinion, even just a hunch, and we look for evidence to either confirm or deny that notion, we have a tendency to prefer evidence which supports our hypothesis than evidence which refutes it. This is why, for example, people can believe in such zany conspiracy theories. Generally, if you start with a hypothesis and look for evidence proving its truth, you will find it, no matter the hypothesis.1 This is also why, I think, different people given the same information through the same newsmedia, will arrive at wildly different conclusions.
Here’s my theory: It’s common knowledge that the news gets things wrong. Headlines are frequently misleading, facts are missed, people are misquoted, etc. This is a fact of life and some of it is due to honest mistakes by newspeople but often it’s due to partisan politics or agendas getting in the way of facts. The worst is in politics when two news organizations can take the same story and spin completely different narratives. Most people take this in stride and know to be skeptical of the most outlandish things they hear about in the news, especially from less reliable sources. The problem is, how do people know what is outlandish or likely to be true, without a source of facts as the baseline? Fact checkers can invest the time to follow information to its source and determine facts, but most people don’t have the time to fact check every news article or political story. Instead, we fact check stories which seem false to us, and the article which seems false to us are those with which we already disagree. This is the confirmation bias at full effect.
The problem is then, by consuming news, people will absorb stories they agree with, and dispute stories that challenge them, and thereby continually be reinforced in their point of view. This is a problem. If no matter how much news we watch, all it will ever do is confirm our already held beliefs, what are we actually learning? Are we coming to a better understanding of the world and refining our belief systems with new information? Evidently not. Watching news will only make the bigoted more bigoted, the disaffected more disaffected, the religious more religious, the secular more secular, and all the various camps that Americans fall under will only fracture further apart from each other.2 When we watch news stories that we agree with, it’s proof that we are right, but when we watch news stories that we disagree with, it’s proof of media bias.3 It seems to me that no matter what we do, we’re all stuck as ignorant trolls yelling at each other for imagined heresies.
But here’s a thought, what if we abstained from news altogether. The vast majority of what people learn in the news is not relevant to our day to day lives and what is relevant we can learn through more word of mouth or more immediate sources. So, what if, for the sake of not accidentally reinforcing one’s own biases, we avoid anecdotal treatments of topics such as the news? If you want a better understanding of an issue, read first hand sources, and in depth books. If you need to keep up with market trends, read financial summaries. If you need to learn about the world, travel, or read a book. Would doing this save us from poisonous biases and allow people to discuss issues from a more neutral point of view? Of course it would, because I’ve seen a lot of examples where it seemed to happen and I’ve successfully debunked any counterexamples.
- This is partly why scientific experiments generally need to be ‘falsifiable’ to be considered reliable. ↩
- Making this problem worse is the increasing trend of newsources to explicitly cater to specific points of view, doing the work of filtering contradictory information for the viewers convenience. ↩
- Funny that everyone believes in a media bias these days, but just can’t agree which way it’s biased! ↩