18: Dealing with bias
“But I think that no matter how smart, people usually see what they’re already looking for, that’s all.”
…Veronica Roth, Allegiant.
BEFORE WE GET INTO BIAS, let’s briefly recap what we read in an earlier chapter about the value of seeking evidence. Evidence is the basis of factual reporting and it can help us counter our own unintentional biases.
Truth is journalism is provisional until updated reliable information becomes available. This applies especially when covering something that is still developing.
We report the facts available at the time to produce a report that is based on the best verifiable information we have. As things develop, more information is likely to become available, enabling us to update earlier reports. This can necessitate revising some of what we have reported.
With breaking stories we expect new information to become available fairly rapidly. That is why some news organisations use Twitter to publish frequent updates and bring their Twitter feed into their website or social media feed. With older stories, new information becomes available less frequently if at all. When it is significant it can be published as a completely new story and refresh the newsworthiness of the topic. It is helpful to link back to earlier reports so readers can see how the topic developed. Accuracy increases over time.
First-hand, direct evidence is preferable to indirect evidence such as hearsay, inference or second hand reports. It includes information obtained through observation by the journalist, eyewitness stories, documents, photographs and video.
Indirect evidence is second-hand information that may have been heard or passed on and may have become distorted on its journey. Rumour is a less-reliable type of indirect evidence and should be listened to but regarded skeptically. If reported, we should state that what we are reporting is rumour so readers do not regarded it as reliable.
Reporting the opinion of experts with in-depth knowledge of the topic can contextualise it and point to what are the most-likely causes and scenarios. We need to identify this as informed opinion. Expert sources are regarded as more reliable than other opinion.
Photos and videos can offer direct evidence, keeping in mind that images can be manipulated by photoshopping.
A public statement from authorities might follow an incident. In assessing this we compare it to information available through direct and indirect evidence and by looking for information that may be missing.
I have placed emphasis on seeking evidence. This is pertinent to news reporting in citizen journalism. It does not prevent us writing speculative stories or any other type of story. What is necessary is identifying the story as such.
Bias through personal filters
In thinking about the whether something is true we should remember that we all assess information through the filters of our own experience, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes. Allowing these things to distort our perceptions leads to reporting what we think is true or what we want to be true rather than what is actually true. At worse it leads to confirmation bias, reporting only those things that support what we believe.
Similarly, our emotional response to something can colour our reporting. It might be best not to write when we are feeling emotionally charged. Wait until we are calmer and can see things more objectively.
Dealing with biases
Our work in citizen journalism will expose us to a range of biases. Some of these have to do with our own biases and their role in influencing who we talk to, the questions we ask and what we write. Others are biases common in our society that we need be aware of.
Identifying when a bias is operating is important, especially when it is one of our own. Here are some of the biases we might find present in ourselves.
Confirmation bias is seeking and giving credibility only to information that supports what we believe. Contrary information is disregarded. We focus on what we think is true and what we want to believe and reject what does not agree with our beliefs.
Social media provides a wealth of examples of confirmation bias. One example I have followed is how people opposing vaccinations often link only to research and reports confirming their oppositional stance and seldom link to those supporting vaccination. This, despite some of the reports and research they link to having been disproven or shown to be erroneous or deceptive. Those supporting vaccination sometimes do this, however they appear to do it less frequently.
The danger that confirmation bias brings to groups is that it creates an ‘echo chamber’ in which supportive messages are bounced back and forth in the group and contrary evidence ignored. Thus, certain beliefs and attitudes are adopted as truths and become embedded as shared group beliefs like a fly in glue (that’s an analogy, something we can use in our writing to reinforce a point).
We can do something about this if we are aware of our confirmation bias.
This is a bias that attributes greater credibility and influence to people with some kind of authority, whether formal or informal.
Sometimes, people without qualifications pass themselves off as having authority, such as some influential people writing on health on social media. The authority of others may come through formal qualifications, experience or roles such as doctors or police.
- who is delivering the message and what are their motivations?
- what do they claim to represent? — some civil authority? some profession? some organisation?
- do they have a formal role in the organisation they speak for?
- do they have authority, formal or informal, to speak for some ethnicity or religion?
- are they empowered legally or by qualification or experience to deliver their message?
- how likely is what they say to be true?
Making choices based on what is available affects our behaviour.
An example is the news. What we are exposed to depends on what is available as news. This is selected from all that is happening in the world at the time. We only learn of things because they are reported, but what about all that is going on that is not reported? It is unavailable.
This is illustrate when people ask ‘why didn’t mainstream media report this?’. It is a useful question for which there are a number of answers.
One explanation limiting the range of news is what media organisations regard as newsworthy to their audience. This is a filter on the daily deluge of news coming from journalists and news gathering agencies.
Another reality is that media organisations do not have reporters in all places and so miss what could be significant and interesting events.
The availability of mobile phones with cameras capable of stills and video photography, as well as telecommunications networks and social media have broadened reporting both by people posting images and news on social media and websites as well as by citizen journalists.
We are now exposed to a broader range of information than we were in the days when print and electronic (radio, TV) media fielded reporters in distant parts of the world. Today, reporting is done by the big news agencies such as AAPT, Reuters, CNN and others who have journalists and photographers ready to go to or who are based in different regions. Freelance journalists, photo-and-video journalists supplement the work of staff journalists.
There are also ‘stringers’ available on call to produce news content for a media organisation in another city. As an example, I used to be a Sydney-based stringer for a Melbourne-based national public radio news service. A producer in Melbourne would call and brief me on their needs and I would produce interviews and radio current affairs material and courier that to Melbourne.
Even though more material is available now, what becomes news remains a small part of the quantity of material with news potential. We only have what is available to base our citizen journalism upon where our work is around news and current affairs. More likely, we focus on some specialty area where we hunt down news ourselves. This allows us to find original material rather than reacting to news created by other journalists or mainstream media.
Availability bias can also lead to what is known as ‘path dependency’. This occurs when an initial choice made from what is available sets us on a particular path of consequent choices.
Take computers. If we buy, say, an Apple or Windows laptop then we set off down a path dependent upon the software, peripherals and other equipment that are compatible with the brand. This makes working with the technology easier because of compatibility between equipment, software and operating system, however at the same time it limits choice, directing us along a certain path dependent on Apple or Windows-compatible products.
It is the same with citizen journalism. We choose a specialty, a niche to write about. That limits our potential to report on some other niche. We can always set up a separate website to follow that other niche or segment our website to produce material on more than one topic. I do this. I maintain this Citizen Journalism website and have another where I do reporting and think-pieces on the permaculture design system.
When we put resources — financial, technological, emotional, intellectual, material, temporal — into something the tendency is to stick with it even when the outputs are of lower quality and even when adopting something new would produce better outcomes. The sunk costs of resources militate against change. This links to path dependency.
An example would be the effort we put into researching and writing a story coming up against a breaking story that could be of greater value to readers. Do we develop the new story or have we sunk so much effort and time into the existing story that we feel compelled to continue with it?
A different example is that faced by photojournalists. Ever since they became available, digital SLR cameras have been the standard tool in photojournalism. Now, newer ‘mirrorless’ cameras offer the advantages of being more compact and lighter weight but just as capable as digital SLRs. Many photojournalists have a substantial sunk-cost investment in SLR camera systems. While many have made the change to the newer, mirrorless equipment, the sunk-costs in SLR’s is a financial barrier to change for others.
Do the sunk emotional and financial costs of a relationship act as a brake on separation when the relationship starts to falter? Stay together and try to fix the relationship or evaluate the potential outcomes and make the change? The sunk-costs might bias the decision towards staying.
When the NSW state government decided in 2017 to cancel local government amalgamations, some local governments had already sunk costs into infrastructure for amalgamation to the extent that de-amalgamating would have been too disruptive and expensive. This illustrates how sunk cost bias in decision making is linked to path dependency. Those local governments had already travelled along the path of amalgamation to such an extent that they had become dependent on its continuation.
The way to determine whether sunk-costs should determine the path is to assess outputs rather than investment.
Status quo bias
This occurs where the existing or default situation is framed as the preferred. It may be based on sunk-cost bias and any consequent path dependency. Sticking with the status quo can be seen as the easier choice. It might not be the best choice.
An example occurs in politics when a government talks up a threat and claims to be the only party capable of properly addressing it, situating the status quo as the preferred solution.
In media communication we need to look out for messages framing the status quo as the preferred solution, rather than changing it. This is a featured of election campaigns. Promoting change would call for a reframing of the situation.
Loss aversion bias
Loss aversion arises when the potential outcomes of decisions are framed in terms of loss rather than gains. This is powerful tactic and can be used to reinforce the status quo.
It can develop from availability bias and path dependency where financial and other resources have been invested in something and the loss through taking a different path is said to be too great.
The value of debunking
We frequently find false and misleading information especially on social media. Some of it might be based on misunderstanding. Some of it is clickbait, sensational headlines designed to get people to click on a story because the website needs visitor numbers to attract advertisers. Some of it is marketing, encouraging visitors to click on a website to expose them to advertising. Some of it might deliberately attempt to mislead. Some might be assumption. Sometimes, people mistake satirical stories for fact.
Fortunately, there are now websites that specialise in assessing claims and, where they are untrue, debunking them. Look for a statement on processes used on websites claiming to be debunkers. Openness as to ownership and methodology is critical to the credibility of such sites.