Bias

March 25, 2021

When we turned on the local news last night the first segment rolled through five straight stories of two murders, a kidnapping, a high-speed chase that ended in mistreatment of the driver, and a house explosion.  That was when Melissa turned to me and said, “Isn’t there any good news anymore.”  Granted, the national outlets have been trying to focus a one-minute positive response to the pandemic at the end of the broadcast, but I need to sit through 29 minutes (interspersed with five commercial breaks) to get there.  This is shared by the print media and the commentators on the “24-hour News” channels.  This seems true regardless of the political bias of the station.

When I looked online, I found Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka set up an experiment at McGill University in Canada.  They examined how people relate to the news and found humans have a “negativity bias,” because of how we evolved to react to threats.  Negativity bias is the tendency to give far more attention to negative details than positive ones.  The associated “confirmation bias” then, is our tendency to selectively look at or see information that confirms our preexisting ideas.  The news is presented negatively by the media because negativity bias is leveraged to increase profits.  Bad news gets more attention, or more clicks, and leads to more revenue for the publication or news agency.  That means we get more bad news.  

There is also evidence that people respond quicker to negative words.  Lab experiments indicate we can recognize negative words faster than positive words and can even tell a word is going to be unpleasant before we can tell exactly what the word is.  There is another interpretation Trussler and Soroka put on their evidence: we pay attention to bad news, because of our bias to think the world is rosier than it is.  We subconsciously believe our own lives are better than most and expect things will be all right in the end.  This view of the world makes the bad news we hear and see more surprising and salient, and we watch.  Our bias makes the ratings go up and the ad times increase.

Thoughts:  I came across another phenomenon for online news called clickbait.  These are headlines that are psychologically geared to make people click on them.  They offer unanswered questions, shock, or “must know” information in the headline to get you to click.  I do not know how many times I have fallen through the 30 click tell-all that never answers the question that caused me to click in the first place.  I have done it enough to realize what is happening and now rarely make it more than 3-4 clicks into the expose.   The headline that took me down the rabbit hole is rarely something I care about, but my bias and my inquiring mind just needs to know.  Do the work.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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