Monday, September 20, 2004

Personal Bias and Recognizing Quality

A few months back I was talking to a friend at work about newspapers. He generally took the New York Times as his authoritative news source. I expressed my opinion that the news content in the Wall Street Journal was vastly superior.

My friend, who is very, very intelligent and has generally similar political leanings to me, told me that he had read some excerpts from the WSJ editorial page that were (to his mind) outrageous right wing propaganda pieces and that as a consequence he was entirely turned off from the WSJ. I said that from my readings the WSJ's content was not at all biased to the right, however the editorial page was clearly filled with masturbatory right wing polemics. I advised ignoring the editorial page, but paying attention to the news articles instead.

Months pass...
This morning when my friend wanders in and mentions that someone accidentally delivered the WSJ to his house, instead of his regular NYT. After reading the paper on BART, he agrees that the quality of the news in the WSJ is simply much, much better in terms of its depth of analysis and overal content, and that there seems to be no noticable right wing bias. I once again advise him to avoid the surrealistically conservative editorial page. But I mention that there was an article on Mary Mapes, the producer of the (now discredited) story on Bush's service record. The story was apparently well researched, and in fact, had nothing but good things to say about her - hardly the sort of thing you'd expect to read in a news source skewed to the right.

What stands out is this: my friend's notion of who he was caused him to dismiss the WSJ as a news source, due to political affiliations. Perhaps, at the same time, my own political biases were in play as well: I've become quite cynical about political parties - the Republicans are shills to big corporations, but at the same time, the Democrats pander to a different set of big businesses (most notably, as an open source advocate, I think the Democrats shill to The Mouse - the Disney Corporation, and other media interests). At the same time, I tend to think that many standard positions on the left are not well thought out, and that even very well educated liberals often take positions that are ideologically sound, but not in accord with empirical evidence.

And my point is...
People seem to put their authoritative information sources through an "ideological compatibility" filter, despite being well educated and highly intelligent - in this case, my friend only read the WSJ by accident. It appears that objectivity takes a back seat to ideology in news source selection. If my friend had an electronic subscription, instead of a physical subscription, he would never have accidentally received the WSJ, and been stuck with it on the BART ride. Given that a few studies have found that the internet allows people of a particular persuasion to meet and reinforce their common beliefs, will the internet actually result in increased polarization and less objectivity? With the supposed problem of "Too Much Information" and increased filtering capabilities actually lead to higher quality information that is ignored by a larger proportion of the audience?


Blogger laura said...

I wonder about this phenomenon of filters and "mass customization", too. Do you think that perhaps it was the success of Amazon's recommendation service that spawned the trend in media outlets (I am thinking of the New York Times online here, but it also applies to library/school websites such as MyLibrary and, to some extent, TiVo) to allow customers/patrons to customize the news or programming to their own interests? Or were readers demanding such a service because they felt that they couldn't keep up with everything, and wanted "their" news presented to them without any other distractions?

I think it's slightly troubling: even though many people don't read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day, at least they see the other headlines on the way to their favorite sections. I think it speaks to the increased insularity of various subcultures in our society that we choose to ignore everything around except what immediately interests us. It's a little like the difference between browsing a call number range in the library versus having the table of contents of your favorite journal emailed to your office -- you might find something tangential and unexpected in the first case, whereas in the second case you'll get relevant, quality information very quickly, but you'll never know what you missed. And yes, I believe that this will soon lead to less objectivity in reportage -- if people don't want objectivity, news outlets will stop providing it. Soon, perhaps, even Fox News will stop pretending to be "fair and balanced," because objectivity will no longer be a measure of quality.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

Two comments: Steve, your friend did not simply deny the WSJ his attention because of who he is. It's much more complex. First, your friend noticed that the WSJ editorial section is woefully ridiculous and often offensive (check out the Lucky Duckies editorial that says that people who make salaries less than $12,000 are lucky because they don't have to pay income tax. Pardon my French, but what a load of shit.). For a news source to be so inconsistent as to have the rest of its reporting in the shadow of their editorial page, you have to question the rest of the content (it's good to hear that it might be different and I'll buy a WSJ out of the news box today and do my own analysis). Second, many social and cultural factors play into what news a person considers authoritative... just like social factors play into your political persuasion.

Second, to Laura's point... I think that this is the beauty of blogs. Blogs are symmetric (two-way communication) so that people can (and will) call you out when you're misrepresenting something. Further, the interesting stuff, divorced of its newspaper context, always "bubbles to the top". (to borrow a phrase from recent MIMS-grad. Mary Hodder). Blogs simultaneously allow news to spread and reach people that may be able to add expertise to a discussion (a good thing... note the CBS memogate scandal) but also allow you to only subscribe to things that you want to know about (not so good).

9:09 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Traupman said...

I agree this is a dark side to collaborative filtering that needs to be examined. However, I guess I don't see it as that large of a change from how people traditionally get their information.

Those who are open minded information omnivores will likely set their filters to include all sorts of viewpoints. Those who are only interested in sources that confirm their ideology will set their filters accordingly.

But, I argue that this isn't all that much different than how people got their information in the pre-internet days. People who really wanted to understand the major issues of the day typically read multiple newspapers and magazines. The particularly open minded subscribed to publications with drastically opposing viewpoints.

Then there are people like my grandfather, who gets all his news from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. When there is a story on TV or in his local paper that conflicts with his worldview, he ignores it. Even if someone hacked his information filter to send him "Mother Jones" articles five times a week, it would have no effect: he simply wouldn't read them.

So, yes, I'm guessing that people's information filters will get tuned to their personal biases. But that's no different than what is already happening in the "information filters" in our heads. Some will consciously seek to break through their biases to get the big picture. Others will simply be happy that there is now less unread newsprint to haul to the curb.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Jesse Mendelsohn said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Jesse Mendelsohn said...

I believe "filtering" in the sense that your friend is practicing happens to everyone everywhere at any time. It's human nature to discredit a person, place, or institution based on extremely limited knowledge.

"I only met him once, but I don't like him. He wears green shirts."


"I don't want to visit Pittsburgh. Too many steel mills."

Sound familiar?

It's because *impressions* count for more than fact in peoples' minds. Your friend got an impression of the WSJ based on a very limited exposure to an obviously biased section of the newspaper.

Now, the Internet may make this worse, I think you have a point there. From what I've learned in Psychology courses and in daily life, when people have an impression of something, they tend to seek out information that will support that impression rather than debunk it. It's a lot easier to convince yourself that you're right than to convince yourself that you're wrong.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Scott Carter said...

On blogs...

In her paper "It's Just a Matter of Common Sense": Ethnography as Invisible Work, Diana Forsythe makes the argument that misconceptions about the work of an ethnographer lead non-experts to believe that they can conduct ethnographies as valid as those an expert would conduct. Forsythe lists six misconceptions, but the upshot is that ethnography has a low threshold for entry: all you need, after all, is a pen, paper, recorder and a few open-ended questions! This approach, of course, ignores the rigorous methodology honed by professionals over years and years. Other disciplines have low thresholds as well. In the last decade, software products have significantly lowered the threshold for the fields of graphic and web design, for example. ( more )

8:51 PM  
Blogger Calvert Jones said...

This discussion on the danger of filtering and resulting polarization is directly related to a point I found fascinating, made in our reading for last week, “Digital Representation: Racism on the World Wide Web”:

“Cass Sunstein (2001) argues that the radical fragmentation of political debates and discussions on the Internet will lead to the slow and steady disintegration of democratic exchanges and infusion of American democratic values. Denied of this open and free forum, filtering techniques will allow the selection of special interest sites, instead of dialogues on differing views and conflicting ideas. This may negatively boost extremists’ causes, because groups with similar interests, unexposed to other points of view, tend to become extremists.”

I want to question Joe’s suggestion that the beauty of blogs stems from the fact that “people can (and will) call you out when you're misrepresenting something,” which implies that blogs offer “dialogues on differing views and conflicting ideas” – a counterargument to the above claims. In my experience, many politically-oriented blogs in America express a “variety of perspectives,” but only within quite locally defined boundaries, especially as limited by general ideologies or preconceptions about how the world works. I often find blogs where people would seem to disagree (using explicit language like “I disagee with X…”), but only within the context of certain fundamental agreements about, for example, how politics operate, or which candidate is the best. They do not necessarily, or even as often as I used to think, tolerate or encourage truly different perspectives. Of course, this depends on which blogs we are discussing, and there are notable exceptions – my point is that blogs are speculated about, and that this speculation often leads to the possibly dangerous conclusion that they are these perfect democratic forums (because, theoretically, anyone with any view, no matter how bizarre or unusual, can start blogging and others may contribute, or “call you out when you’re misrepresenting something”). In reality, however, I would argue that people with truly different perspectives are often ostracized or subtly beaten down in blogs because they don’t share the general ideology of the blog itself, which all too often the bloggers would never admit (“Of course this is an open-minded blog, open to all viewpoints!…unless you happen to support the war in Iraq, or think Kerry would be able to handle the war on terror (whatever it is that happens to hit the blog’s nerve), which is just too absurd and obviously wrong an idea for us to even consider.”) My friend at the New Republic has told me that, while he loves working there, TNR tends to be read by a small audience that already agrees with almost everything that’s in it. That could be a problem for blogs too.

Within a small spectrum, I think, disagreement is allowed and encouraged. Granted, it’s very hard to find an environment where people with truly different perspectives are welcomed, and engage in productive discussion (which I define as: getting somewhere different, hopefully better, from where you started), rather than enumerating certain static views to which everyone on the blog basically subscribes, with a few nitpicking points of disagreement here and there. And that’s not really democracy, so I while I think Cass Sunstein’s argument is premature, it’s not off the mark. And while I agree with Joe’s caveat that blogs “also allow you to only subscribe to things that you want to know about (not so good),” I view this possibility as much more than an afterthought, and much more potentially destructive.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

I admit... I was too simplistic. Blogs for low-profile individuals are more of a "here's my thoughts" kind of thing... however, for high-profile bloggers (like danah, larry, mary, cory, xeni, et al.) it's much more of a dialogue with constant feedback from their readership. In that environment, it is much more difficult to pass of misrepresentation.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Paul Duguid said...

The Guardian has a piece this morning speculating about the emerging symbiotic relationship between newspapers and blogs. The argument panders to my belief that whereas the standard line is that new communications technologies replace the old, in fact they more usually complement one another. While blogs may become critical to fact checking (though equally, they are playing an alternative role, throwing doubt on quite well established "facts"), it may take the press to establish a "top" to which things must ultimately bubble (as Joe puts it) and also to provide important serendipitous access to news (a notion given new life by the recent publication of Merton's book Serendipity) that Laura suggests filtering is denying us. I hope we'll return to these topics when we discuss the notion of the "public sphere" in a few week.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Steve Chan said...

First, your friend noticed that the WSJ editorial section is woefully ridiculous and often offensive (check out the Lucky Duckies editorial that says that people who make salaries less than $12,000 are lucky because they don't have to pay income tax. Pardon my French, but what a load of shit.). For a news source to be so inconsistent as to have the rest of its reporting in the shadow of their editorial page, you have to question the rest of the content To me, this is one of those traps that come out of making inferences. The editorials are dodgy, therefore the news content may be dodgy as well. Is this kind of inference really accurate? I think the problem is that as "thinking people" we are quite used to making inferences and operating at fairly high levels of abstraction - in this case, there is an abstract notion of the overall credibility of a news source, and we infer from the editorial page what the overall credibility might be.

My own observation is that a source may be very accurate and authoritative in some contexts, while being entirely worthless in other contexts. Part of the difficulty in determining quality is figuring out what questions can be reliably answered by a source/model/method and what questions can't be. I'm pretty certain that we all know this, however when personal biases are tickled, I believe many of us are prone to forget this fact.

The other thing that I sometimes wonder about, based on this week's readings, is the importance of an incentive system in promoting the generation of high quality information. The WSJ is a key resource for businessmen, who are willing to pay top dollar (the WSJ ain't cheap) for accurate information that effects the bottom line. Do businessmen require higher objectivity and quality, because they need accurate information to make profitable decisions?

Months back, the Pentagon was experimenting with the idea of creating a terrorism futures market - the political uproar killed it (at least publicly - it may get resurrected as a pentagon funded private operation, like Total Information Awareness). But if you read some of the background info on futures markets, you find that they have surprising accuracy.

To me, the "Terrorism Futures Market" seems to resonate very strongly with the essay by Freidrich von Hayek. The futures market seems to be good at aggregating all the disparate bits of information that individuals possess about a question, and it mysteriously produces a fairly accurate summary - without having passed any "facts" aside from how much someone is willing to bet on an outcome. In a way, it seems to generate qualitative information via a quantitative method.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Geoff Nunberg said...

A lot of people have remarked on the discrepancies between the Journal's news stories and its editorial pages -- as someone said, it's as if the reporters and editorial writers enter the building by different doors. In fact that's consistent with an old idea of objectivity that dates back to the 1870's, that reporting and opinion are supposed to be kept clearly separate. Charles Dana, the editor of the NY Sun, wrote editorials excoriating President Grant but instructed his news editors to be strictly nonpartisan in their political coverage.

It's true that the distinction was always more an ideal than a reality -- in the early 1940's, Harold Ickes took after the Republican papers for their bias in the way they covered New Deal programs. (By way of example, he observed that newspapers never reported elevator accidents in department stores.) But I think that nowadays the distinction is being questioned even as an ideal -- the recent attacks on press bias presuppose that objectivity is simply unattainable, since unconscious attitudes invariably influence the way the stories are covered.

As Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center put this point:

"[M]embers of the media . . .argued their opinions do not matter because as professional journalists, they report what they observe without letting their opinions affect their judgment. But being a journalist is not like being a surveillance camera at an ATM, faithfully recording every scene for future playback. Journalists make subjective decisions every minute of their professional lives. They choose what to cover and what not to cover, which sources are credible and which are not, which quotes to use in a story and which to toss out."

"Liberal bias in the news media is . . . not the result of a vast left-wing conspiracy; journalists do not meet secretly to plot how to slant their news reports. But everyday pack journalism often creates an unconscious "groupthink" mentality that taints news coverage and allows only one side of a debate to receive a fair hearing."

That's the ideology that leads to the insistence on the importance of "balance" in coverage (Fox News wouldn't bother to call itself "fair and objective"). And in the course of things, it it blurs the distinction between ostensibly objective reporting and programming that has an explicit point of view -- as Thomas Sowell puts it: "Anyone listening to Rush Limbaugh knows that what he is saying is his own opinion. But people who listen to the news on ABC, CBS, or NBC may imagine that they are getting the facts, not just those facts which fit the ideology of the media, with the media's spin."

I have the feeling that that idea -- that everything's filtered by some point of view -- seems to be dominant in the blog world, where it sometimes seems to me that "objectivity" is simply not an operant concept. But maybe I'm just thinking of the political blogs -- this is probably less true if we're talking, say, about Slashdot.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Calvert Jones said...

It’s interesting to consider how this glorification of “balance” in news coverage – as a surefire way to prevent biased reportage – can lead to the very thing it seeks to avoid. When I went to work in the Balkans this past year, I had various preconceptions, from CNN and other news sources, leading to the seriously flawed conclusion that “ancient ethnic rivalries” were the main force behind the Balkan wars. Plenty of prominent writers on the Balkans, such as Robert Kaplan in “Balkan Ghosts” and Tom Friedman in his NYT column, would consistently imply that the Balkan region was inevitably torn apart by these ancient ethnic rivalries. Tito kept them down long enough, they would argue, but his death unleashed the ethnic furies that exploded in the earlier nineties.

The insistence on “balance” in covering the Balkans, I think, led to tragic miscalculations in foreign policy. As Noel Malcolm (another Balkan historian) has observed, there was an almost constant portrayal of the conflicts as “violence” (nevermind who instigated it) that would “erupt” (again, agency is deliberately avoided) “on both sides,” as if everyone was just completely mad, and equally to blame. There are even some horror stories about how journalists reporting on one atrocity committed by a group, such as Arkan’s Tigers, would delay reporting it until another equally horrible atrocity committed by “the other side” could be found to “balance” the article.

5:37 PM  

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