Framing in perceptions of news bias
On The Media-- I Know You Are But What Am I?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: [The study] just showed six television clips of the conflict to 144 observers, some of whom were pro-Israeli and some of whom were pro-Arab and some of whom were neutral.
And pro-Israelis found that the clips had an astonishing number of anti-Israel references and the pro-Arabs found the very same clips had a huge number of anti-Arab references, so partisans were able to look at the exact same clips and draw diametrically opposing conclusions about them.
The more informed people were, the more likely their assessments of the television news clips were diametrically opposing. And the interesting thing is that what's animating this difference in perception is the fear among both pro-Israelis and pro-Arabs that neutrals will gravitate to the other side. And the data shows that in this, they're actually misguided.
what happens is when journalists cover daily news events, what they do is they write about, you know, whatever happened the previous day. And what partisans want is they want far more than just what happened the previous day. They want all of the context, and usually the context that they want is somewhat selective, but they want the context that essentially justifies whatever happened the previous day from their point of view.
So long as reporters are trying to describe both sides, it is inevitable that they're going to run into conflict with both sides. And one of the ironic things when these conflicts break out is pretty much the only thing that partisans on both sides will agree on is that the media is biased against them.
BOB GARFIELD: So even if every story on the Mideast were accompanied by historical context in eight volumes, the partisans would never be mollified.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: I think so, because I think context for an Israeli is something different than context for an Arab, precisely in the way that you just laid out. So the reasons people come to particular points of view is that they are aware of, you know, the historical context and they are aware of all of the things that might have led up to that particular moment in the conflict. The person on the other side has a whole litany of events that lead up to their own perception of whatever happened yesterday.
This seems pretty much like a description of what has come to be known as framing or the use of cognitive models. It raises two interesting questions:
1. What is the actual cognitive process behind this rather anecdotal description of what I would call frame entrenchment and online frame processing (blending).
2. Is there a practical implication for recipients of news? The story seems to conclude that there is nothing journalists can do in their reporting and ultimately the author is probably right. But I think the internet could help with ample space for pointing out multiple perspectives or at the very least get around the constraints of space on the printed page or time in a broadcast. The BBC probably does the best job of this - although it is frequently accused of bias by conservatives (perhaps it is biased, or perhaps there is something to Stephen Colbert's quip that "truth has a well-known liberal bias").
But what is the reader/listener/viewer to do if they want to learn to recognize "true" (or rather excessive) bias and at the same time gain enough information to make informed decisions (often a shortcut for frame entrenchment through blending). Are we simply beholden to our cognitions approach to reasoning? Ultimately, we probably are. But that doesn't necessarily deny us the freedom of challenging the boundaries of our frames (defined as structures of expectation by Tannen, among others). What is unreasonable to expect is a clear heuristic for discovering bias which many rationalists believe lie in logic. I suspect that the the only option is in zen-like acceptance of the limits combined with a Philosopher-like pursuit of truth through questioning. In other words, life is difficult, complex and annoyingly multifaceted but it is in our very nature to engage with its difficulty and complexity.