As noted in my previous post, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 29% of Americans believe that news organizations get their facts straight while 63% claim that news stories often are lacking in accuracy. 26% also claim that news organizations are careful to avoid politically biased reporting. 60% of those surveyed claimed that the news organizations are politically biased.
In my previous post, I considered that one explanation for these views is that the media is biased and error prone. Of course, it is also worthwhile exploring alternative (or additional) explanations.
One possible cause of this view is that fact that folks on the right have been claiming that the media is biased since about the time of the Nixon administration. This trend has continued and it is likely that this charge has influenced the views of some people.
Another possible cause is that people are generally poor at critical thinking and hence generally do not consider their own biases. If someone is unaware of his own biases, then they will tend to see the world with an uncorrected distortion-that created by their own biases. As such, even an objective and accurate report will strike them as either inaccurate or biased (or both). To use an analogy, when students come to talk to me about a bad paper grade, they often insist that their papers are quite good. Even when I show the fallacies, grammatical errors, missing material, factual errors and such in their work, they sometimes still insist that the papers are good. In some cases I am sure they are quite sincere they truly think their papers are fine pieces of work, despite the fact that they are not. Likewise, someone who sees the world in a biased way and is not aware of his bias will tend to see anything that disagrees with his view as mistaken.
Interestingly, Thomas Hobbes wrote about this tendency. He notes in his Leviathan that people tend to regard a failure to agree with them as a sign of provocative disagreement. As such, when folks see a news story that simply fails to agree with their beliefs, they will tend to regard it as biased, inaccurate or both.
Adding to this is the fact that sources outside of the mainstream media are highly polarized, both left and right. This enables folks to easily find sources (often blogs and web pages) that “confirm” and “support” there views. This, in turn, can contribute to their belief that the news media is inaccurate and biased. For example, folks who think that Bush was behind 9/11 can find sites to back them up and “confirm” their conspiracy theory. As another example, folks who think that Obama is not a natural born American can find sites to “support” their views.
While it is a good idea to find outside sources and use them to check on the mainstream media, it is important to make sure that these sources are credible and accurate. That can, of course, be rather challenging.
My view is that it is wise to be critical of the media (or any source). However, it is equally wise to critical of one’s own beliefs. After all, if the media can be biased, so can we.