Bias in the eye of the beholder

LIAM HEHIR
Last updated 12:00 14/07/2014

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OPINION: Why don't I write more columns about how well Labour is doing at the moment?

Am I getting orders or (as someone once suggested) cheques from the Beehive?

The answer is actually pretty mundane. It happens to be my opinion that the party is in fact not doing well. Indeed, I think it is at something of a low. I would be happy to revise that view in the light of arguments to the contrary, provided they are tightly reasoned or empirical measures of public sentiment. I'm less inclined to be persuaded by the fact that individual partisans don't like the Government.

The fact that you personally don't support the prime minister doesn't mean he isn't connecting with centrist voters. I learned that the hard way with Helen Clark. But coming to terms with the fact she was a skilled operator didn't mean I had to agree with her political philosophy.

Does this mean my views aren't coloured by my own philosophies? Of course not! By virtue of being human, I suffer from cognitive biases which can never be fully eradicated. The same goes for every single person involved in journalism. You should never believe anyone who claims to be wholly dispassionate on matters of public affairs.

But one really curious thing about alleged media bias is that it can depend on the reader as much as it does on the writer.

In 1982, Stanford University undertook a landmark study on how people with strongly held views perceive media coverage. The test subjects were divided into two groups - those who sympathised with Israel and those who opposed it. When shown news reports of the Lebanese Civil War, the pro-Israel group complained that the coverage was biased against Israel. The same reports were then shown to the anti-Israel group - who complained that they were biased in favour of Israel.

Both groups felt that the coverage would unduly influence an undecided person towards the opposite position.

As a matter of objective reality, of course, they couldn't both be right. These studies therefore give us an important insight into how we perceive the news. This is sometimes called the "hostile media effect".

The idea is that if you already hold a strong opinion, you will be primed to perceive bias no matter what's actually been reported. Where the coverage confirms your views, your eyes will just dance over it.

Conversely, when you come across views that are not congenial to your own opinions the experience will be jarring. The matter will stick out in your mind and taint your perception of how the media has covered the subject as a whole.

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This could be quite distressing if you are one of those people who view disagreement as a sign of evil rather than error. It means that the perceived bias isn't leading us down the path to foolishness, but to perdition. This is the point where conspiracy theorising sets in.

Here's the ironic thing: some studies show that perception of media bias will drop off when the writer is open about his or her personal views on the subject. This could be because if readers know what the writer's biases are; they will be prepared for what's coming. Their expectations aren't injured when they find they disagree with the writer's conclusions.

You can see why this creates problems for "straight news" reporters who try hard to cover contentious issues without favour. As one researcher in this field once put it: "If I think the world is black, and you think the world is white, and someone comes along and says it is grey, we will both think that person is biased."

Opinion writers don't suffer from that problem.

Not that this will placate everybody. There will always be those who fundamentally don't accept that reasonable people can have differing views.

When confronted with opinions they don't like, these people really have three choices. First, they can try to persuade their ideological opponents with constructive debate.

Second, they can simply avoid people and media that do not affirm their pre-conceptions. Third, they can try to hound people they disagree with out of the public square.

I believe that a good liberal sees only the first two options as respectable. Again, however, that's just an opinion.

- Manawatu Standard

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