The Science of Bias

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam talks about how the media people watch tends to reinforce their beliefs.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In a few minutes, the taste of country cooking. But just mention the word bias in a conversation about Middle East reporting and a storm of emotion is unleashed, whether you're sitting around a family television set or reading angry comments on a blog. It's hard to understand how two people can watch the same news story and have entirely opposite reactions to it, but there may be a scientific reason for that.

Shankar Vedantam is a national correspondent for the Washington Post. He writes about science and human behavior. His weekly Monday column deals with science in the news. In the past two weeks he's written about perceptions of bias. And he joins us today by phone from England. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. SHANKAR VEDANTAM (Washington Post): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And in your column you wrote about a telling experiment in which researchers showed 144 observers six television news segments about Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon. And what did they find?

Mr. VENDANTAM: Well, it was quite striking. When pro-Israelis watched the news segments, they found an astonishing number of anti-Israel references and very few pro-Israel references. And when pro-Arabs watched the very same news clips, they saw an astonishing number of anti-Arab news references and almost no pro-Arab references.

CONAN: Hmm, so they come to completely different conclusions about the very same things.

Mr. VENDANTAM: Yeah, what might be even more troubling than the fact they come to different conclusions might be that they actually are seeing entirely different things altogether. So this is not just a question of interpretation, it's a question of perception.

What partisans on both sides seem unable to do is to process any aspect of the news that might actually, you know, benefit their side of the argument. So they seem blind to positive news. And ironically, what happens whenever these conflicts break out is the one thing that partisans on both sides can agree on is that the news media is biased against them.

CONAN: But the partisans are sometimes very well informed. They may be partisan, but they're well informed. Does information serve as a buffer here?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Yes, unfortunately that was found not to be the case in the experiments that were conducted at Stanford University after the Israeli war in Lebanon in 1982. They found that people who were the best informed among the pro-Israeli and pro-Arab partisans were actually the most likely to see bias in the media.

And Stanford University psychologist Lee Ross thinks this is because people who are very knowledgeable understand a great degree of, you know, historical context, and of course it's the context from their side. But when they see a particular news clip, especially about a news event that took place the previous day, what they often feel is that there's a large amount of context that's missing. The more knowledgeable people are, the more context they find missing and the more therefore they feel that a particular news bulletin is extremely biased.

CONAN: I wonder, was there anything about explicitly partisan news sources? Do people find those more congenial?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Yeah. Explicitly partisan news sources are sort of an interesting phenomenon because, of course, the audience that comes to them is somewhat self-selected. So the audience that tends to come to, you know, an extremely ideological news organization are people who largely share that ideological position.

The people who don't share that position who come, who just sort of, you know, stop in for a visit, you know, invariably shrug their shoulders and say, well what do you expect? You know, they're partisan and they're ideological, and of course they're going to be biased.

So the ironic thing is that most of the, you know, the ire of partisans on both sides is targeted against mainstream media which, whatever their faults, are actually trying to be even-handed.

CONAN: So media like The Washington Post, for example.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Right. And you know, I'm sure this is happening at NPR as well. Whenever these conflicts break out you get an astonishing number of e-mails and calls and really people really upset from both sides who are listening to the very same programs and drawing exactly the opposite conclusions from them.

CONAN: Well, today you wrote about brain imaging and bias.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Right.

CONAN: And that was fascinating, the studies that show what happens inside the brains of partisans.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Right. So the psychologists who studied the Israeli-Lebanese conflict in 1982 were not so much interested in foreign affairs as much as the working of the partisan mind. And that, you know, their results can be applied more broadly than just in the realm of foreign affairs. Certainly they can be applied to domestic affairs and to politics and to why Republicans and Democrats, for example, love to hate each other.

And the latest version of the study is to try and do brain imaging scans of partisans, Republicans and Democrats. And what the studies find is that, you know, most people believe that they carefully weigh the information and then come to certain conclusions. What the brain imaging seems to find is that it's actually the reverse that's happening.

People come to conclusions pretty early and then essentially spend the rest of the time, say in a political campaign, essentially defending their opinions against attacks. In other words, they are resistant to taking in any information that could threaten those preexisting beliefs.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Mishleen(ph). Mishleen's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

MISHLEEN (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MISHLEEN: To talk about the personal bias that we can see on TV or when we're hearing the news - I'm a Lebanese-American, and when the shelling first started in Beirut I was listening to CNN and the news anchor, she was clearly bias and it was so transparent through what she was reporting, talking about beautiful Haifa had been shelled and the beautiful Haifa beaches. You know, and my daughters were listening to the same broadcast with me and we looked at each other and we thought, well, okay, Beirut is beautiful too, but no one is saying beautiful Beirut has been shelled.

When I listen to a news report I want it to be objective and I don't want to see the bias of the reporter or the news anchor coming so transparently through what that person is saying. I want to make my own opinions, and I just want the news to be reported the way they are.

CONAN: And going back to our earlier conversation, Mishleen, do you now watch different news media?

MISHLEEN: I watch CNN, but I also watch the LBCI, which is the Lebanese Broadcasting Company. I have a satellite dish and I also watch Al-Jazeera. And part of the reason I watch both - okay, the LBCI is a Lebanese company. I know that they will have a certain slant on it, so I expect that. But I do watch both just to see both sides of the story and then I make my own judgment on what is happening.

CONAN: All right. Mishleen, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And Shankar Vedantam, this Middle East conflict, as you say, well, it's especially difficult for a lot of us. It's a recurring crisis with highly emotional partisans on both sides. What do you think we can learn?

Mr. VEDANTAM: Well, I think from the point of the news media, from the point of view of reporters such as myself, I think one of the sad messages of the story is that it's probably impossible to write articles that please both sides. And I suppose at one level that's perfectly obvious.

The deeper message from this might be that, you know, people might want to question whether the way they see the world is the way the world actually is, because people with different persuasions clearly come to entirely different conclusions from the very same data.

The other important point I think that's worth mentioning and that came directly out of the studies in the '80s is that the reason partisans seem extremely upset at the news is that they are worried about the effect of the news on neutral observers.

So pro-Israelis are worried that neutrals will drift toward the Arab position, and pro-Arabs are worried about the reverse. And at this, the research essentially finds that partisans on both sides are wrong. Neutral people, I suppose first of all are - can be uninterested, so they just don't pay attention at all, but when they do pay attention they often are able to see the pros and cons on both sides much more clearly than partisans.

So partisans believe that other people, the neutrals, are more susceptible to quote-unquote propaganda, whereas the truth is that I think that people in the middle actually seem to have a clearer perception of things and are less likely to be swayed than the people on either end.

CONAN: Shankar Vedantam, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: Shankar Vedantam, national correspondent for The Washington Post, who joined us from London. You can read his column on science in the news every Monday.

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