us vs them laThese days journalism is in a bit of a death match with human nature… and journalism is losing.

Maybe it’s not quite a newsflash but journalists are imperfectly human and they do ere. Some are even biased. More than a few of us have found good sport in this, yammering on about bias in (check all that apply):

_______The New York Times
_______Fox News
_______Talk radio
_______MSNBC
_______”Mainstream” media or as Sarah Palin recently dubbed it the “Lamestream” media)

But then I’m not thinking human imperfection of journalists at all, I’m thinking much closer to home.

Amidst plenty of third-grade finger-wagging about just who the biased sources really are – You! No You! Nooo YOU!! – is way too little “if Johnny jumped off a cliff, would you” perspective, you know the kind that grown-ups usually provide on the playground.

Far from objective, turns out our perceptions of bias are actually a result of a complex, primordial and really quite fascinating stew of both psychology and sociology. To get schooled in the sociology, Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort” is a one-stop-shop of ah hah moments. See Purple Interviews with Bishop here. On the psychology front, media bias is the ultimate inkblot test, and as a society, we’re in need of more than a few 50-minute-hours of couch time.

So here’s a primer on just three of the many, many ways we human beings fold, bend, spindle and mutilate factual reality (oh do tell me what the heck spindling is). Bad news for the smug: This means you too, not just the people you think have bad taste in t-shirt slogans, yard art and presidential candidates.

Confirmation bias: A phenomena well documented in research, we like the information that supports our view of things, facts be damned. We do all sorts of backflips to confirm what we think is true: We pick new info if we don’t like what we hear, we impugn the integrity of people who tell us what we don’t want to hear, and we even completely forget what we’d prefer to forget. Presto, chango, it’s gone-o…

Biased assimilation: Apparently when it comes to the human psyche, what’s good for the goose is distinctly not good for the gander. A 1979 study gave opponents and proponents of the death penalty contradictory studies on the effectiveness of capital punishment. Rather than creating agreement that the state of the information is inconclusive, each group uncritically accepted the information that supported their view while they subjected the study articulating the alternative view to a harsh critique.

The hostile media effect: A landmark 1984 study of the perception of media coverage of the 1982 Beirut massacre by pro-Arab and pro-Israeli observers demonstrated a strong tendency for partisans to perceive the very same news reports as biased against them – in exactly opposite directions – leading both sides to infer that the personal views of the journalists was opposite of their own.

“Partisans… are bound to believe that the preponderance of reliable, pertinent evidence favors their viewpoint. Accordingly, to the extent that the small sample of evidence and argument featured in a media presentation seems unrepresentative of this larger “population” of information, perceivers will charge bias in the presentation and will be likely to infer hostility and bias on the part of those responsible for it… In cases in which both groups believe that actual program content favored neither side, for example, both groups are apt to protest such “unwarranted” objectivity.”

The most fascinating part of the hostile media effect study is that it isn’t a phenomena created from lack of information or as political partisans would so charmingly characterize in each other as stupidity. Rather the people with the most knowledge perceived the most bias: “These people had the most basis for finding discrepancies in the coverage that was provided and the information that could have been provided.” Maybe it’s just normal that if you understand something in depth, you find the brief survey presented in a news article as inadequate. But biased? Maybe notsomuch.

Perhaps the next time you find yourself blathering on about media bias, you might want to briefly pause to look in the mirror. You’d be looking at someone who owns a part of the problem.

Good things can begin – and always have begun – there.

(Want more than three ways our thinking messes us up? Find a veritable cornucopia here.)

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Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.