This statement, made by Barack Obama in 2018, is something liberals and conservatives agree on – which only proves the former President’s point. That is, everyone sees the problem, but no one knows if or when they are a part of it.
To understand this, we need to talk about “story selection bias.”
Before we do that, though, let’s first establish a common baseline of facts for this discussion: 1) that certain facts are mutually exclusive, meaning they necessarily guarantee that not everyone can be right; and that 2) there are objective truths, even in politics.
The problem lies in finding them.
Understanding Story Selection Bias
Selection bias, broadly speaking, is the bias introduced by the selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.
In research, selection bias is a critical error in the way a group is selected or sampled that produces fundamentally incorrect conclusions. This same error regularly crops up outside the lab when the conclusions we want to reach, our prior assumptions, and other biases come together to skew the information we seek out. The result is a collection of information very likely to affirm what we already think or believe.
Individuals aren’t unique in seeking skewed information. Our news media is just as guilty. Worse, the biased information collected by a media outlet is being published and broadcast to millions of people whose primary source of knowledge of the happenings in the world comes from the news.
Story selection bias is the foundation of “alternative facts.” And alternative facts, for their part, are a primary culprit in our society’s deepening polarization.
Story Selection Bias in Action
Typically when people think alternative facts, they think of easily falsifiable claims like, for example, when President Trump said the crowds at his inauguration were the largest ever. But this is simply, verifiably false – not an alternative fact. An important distinction lies in the fact that alternative facts are not easily, objectively falsifiable.
Qualitative claims, those are the purview of the alternative fact.
So, when and where does the media use biased story selection to support or counter qualitative claims? Mainly in cases where the issue is either too large or too complex to empirically prove one way or the other.
To see the bias in action, we need to focus on particular news outlets and the skewed, isolated worlds they construct for their viewers. To illustrate both sides of the coin, let’s delve into one well-known conservative outlet and one well-known liberal outlet.
The World of a FoxNews Viewer
It may come as a surprise but, according to a Harvard-backed study of the major news networks’ coverage of President Trump during his first 100 days in office, FoxNews was (on average) quite fair. The study reported that FoxNews offered plenty of positive and negative stories on the administration.
A problem with this study, though, is that it focused on FoxNews overall, meaning it didn’t correct for the fact that the network’s most popular pundits – namely, Hannity, Pirro, Dobbs, and the panel at Fox & Friends – are Trumpeters of the first degree; collectively, their coverage of the POTUS is almost invariably positive.
A Presidency Above Reproach
It is clear that the president has a tangible influence over the network. When Pirro, for example, was fired for her controversial comments about Muslims, Trump personally called in and asked that she be brought back. She was.
And in return, the president expects loyalty. In the few instances where Trump’s favorite commentators’ coverage of his administration isn’t 100% positive, he lets his disapproval be known on Twitter. And there is perhaps nobody in the media more loyal to Donald Trump than Fox’s own Sean Hannity. Hannity has actively campaigned for Trump, going as far as endorsing him at one of his rallies.
Every weeknight the show “Hannity,” which airs during prime news-watching hours (9 to 10 PM), drips with bias as its host continues to unequivocally support Trump in all his endeavors. Hannity’s website is similarly all-in on the anti-Democrat, pro-Trump platform.
Moreover, if you pay close attention to the images on Hannity’s website/TV program you will notice one of FoxNews’s more subtle psychological plays. Specifically, the fact that virtually all of the pictures of Donald Trump show the President looking calm, authoritative, and well-groomed, while nearly all of the pictures of Democratic opponents like Elizabeth Warren show her looking like Mussolini – often yelling and shaking her head or fist (see below). This, I am confident, is not by accident.
Blue Lives Matter
Members of “Fox Nation” are also subjected to pervasively highlighted instances of police officers being injured or killed. Reliably, whenever you visit the U.S. section of FoxNews, a majority of all articles are highlighting Democrats’ perceived “weak on crime” stance and police officer fatalities, reinforcing a perceived “war on police.”
How reliably? Enough that I visited the page last minute, a totally random sample, and was greeted with this:
In order: random fluff piece, Democrats being weak on crime, officer killed, federal law enforcement being heroic, officer injured, officer unjustly punished, judicial activist being weak on crime, and … whatever that last one is.
The adoption of police officers into the conservative culture war is an interesting development, several years in the making. Republicans’ love of “law and order” is nothing new. In the past (such as during the administration of George W. Bush) this took the form of vehement support for U.S. troops. Since the War in Iraq became a quagmire, though, many on the Right have soured on U.S. interventionism in favor of an “America First” style approach to foreign policy. This left a void that conservative voices have stuffed and effectively filled with police officers. When the Left says “black lives matter,” the Right responds, “blues lives matter.” Support, or lack of support, for police officers is now a talking point in identity politics discourse.
A final point about FoxNews: In 2017, the network dropped its famous, long-time slogan, “Fair & Balanced” in favor of “Most Watched, Most Trusted.” This, in a way, feels like the natural, inevitable conclusion of story selection bias – truth by consensus, rather than truth by objective facts.
The World of an MSNBC Viewer
For a very different world, we turn to MSNBC. For the past several years, the outlet’s bread and butter has been near constant, negative coverage of the Trump Administration. There is truth behind conservative complaints of “the liberal media” – most TV reporters and pundits outside of FoxNews are left-leaning. Many of those journalists, however, seem to make an effort to remain objective. Fareed Zakaria is a great example of this. Zakaria is no Trump supporter but he gives credit where credit is due. Not so with MSNBC.
For example, MSNBC focused an inordinate amount of time on the unstable situation in North Korea as President Trump and Kim Jong-Un faced off in a juvenile war of words. Yet, when the Trump Administration worked to deescalate the situation, there was nothing to hear from MSNBC but crickets (see below).
NBC News online tracks this Trump-can-do-no-right narrative quite closely. Here’s a clip of NBC’s landing page as of the writing of this article:
With the exception of the opinion piece by Newsspeak contributor Noah Berlatsky, each of these is a piece critical of President Trump himself or of his administration.
Black Lives Matter and ‘Woke Culture’
We also see pervasively highlighted instances of young men of color being shot in the streets, typically by police, LGBTQ individuals being targeted because of their sexual identity, and other marginalized groups ignored or harmed by society.
While FoxNews told the story of America’s police under attack, and the apathetic Democrats that won’t defend them, here we see America’s racial minorities as the victims of systemic violence. We also see instances of institutional intolerance and animus toward the LGBTQ community. The two outlets are telling the stories of two very different worlds with very different ‘wars.’
Reconciling These Two Worlds
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder so many conservatives are thoroughly convinced there is a war against police officers and see uncritical support of black men shot by police as a sign of apathy to the struggles of law enforcement. It is also no wonder so many liberals are convinced of the tenacity of systemic racism and see vocal and steadfast support of law enforcement as a sign of apathy to the struggles of racial minorities. Trump’s poll numbers reflect this divide. Whereas his approval rating among Republicans is hovering around 80%, among Democrats it’s only around 10%
How is that possible? It all starts to make more sense when you understand that these two groups don’t live in the same universe of information.
The fact is, many of these narratives are worth talking about. It’s not as if police officers don’t have dangerous, difficult, important jobs and it’s not as if African Americans are as safe as white Americans when confronted by law enforcement. A problem arises when these stories paint too broad a picture, or when an outlet’s silence on “that other narrative” is taken as evidence that the other narrative is garbage.
Worse, outlets may pursue their ideological agendas in broad daylight, actively attacking and attempting to discredit those other narratives, as The Daily Wire does relentlessly with LGBTQ issues. When our political tribes become enemies, discrediting their narratives becomes as important as crediting our own. After Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was fully released, the narrative from left-leaning outlets turned to impeachment whereas the narrative from the right turned to “investigating the investigators.” These outlets are now vying for control of the narrative, to discredit the other narrative and legitimize their own.
A problem also arises when we extrapolate too easily. Story selection bias works because all that it takes are a few anecdotes before our minds begin to generalize and fill in the blanks. The human brain is wired for narrative. We don’t work well with raw data or think statistically. Our minds use sparse information to create broad stories and then we seek additional information to confirm those stories until eventually, they harden into beliefs, and beliefs are hard to change.
Although our mind’s ability to “fill in the blanks” can be useful, it has some major drawbacks. It can also, for instance, influence us to overestimate the likelihood of a dramatic incident like a plane crash (about 20 a year) while ignoring a far more common incident like a car accident (about 5 million per year)…The thing to realize is that the modern media not only knows this, it bets on it. TV news programs want to scare and excite you. Why? Because that’s what keeps viewers watching. As the saying goes: whatever bleeds, leads.
The Data is There, Conclude What You Want
Also worrisome is the malleability of data.
Let’s say MSNBC is running a network-wide narrative about the Trump administration doing a bad job on foreign policy. Word would travel down and programmers at the network would pick and choose stories that fit that narrative. Or it may not even be intentional. Assuming there is a clear leftward bias in professionals working at MSNBC, those professionals’ personal biases will kick in and do the work for them.
MSNBC would do this while, at the same time, a conservative network like FoxNews would pick and choose stories, “alternative facts,” that fit the opposite narrative. Story selection bias is a two-way street. And here’s the kicker: neither side is necessarily lying.
Why? Because American foreign policy is so broad and all-encompassing that it often provides enough raw information to support both sides of a given story. If you want to believe that “Trump is doing a good job” you can find enough examples of him doing a good job; and, if you want to believe he is doing a bad job, you can find enough examples of him doing a bad job.
At the end of the day, most questions – whether they be qualitative or quantitative – do have an honest-to-God, true answer. The question “Is the Trump administration doing a good job on foreign policy?” does have an answer, it’s either “yes” or “no” (or a more “it’s complicated, but…” type answer which, either way, is still bounded by objective reality).
But to get such a clear answer would require a depth of research and attention to detail most audiences aren’t interested in, and thus, not worth a network’s time or money to produce. It’s so much easier for these networks to stick with the standard narratives and their own set of alternative facts.
If you want a fuller truth, the obvious solution is to put in the time and energy to watch or read a variety of sources. Using triangulation, we can take each source’s bias at face value and start to get at the broader truth by piecing the different, incomplete stories together.
If you do stick to your preferred network, however, just know you’re missing out on some significant pieces of the puzzle and you can’t expect to know the whole truth. Chances are, at least some of the times you hear somebody you disagree with say something you dismiss as fake news, you are the one who has it wrong.
Because of market pressures in the media, this is not going to change. After all, Democrats don’t watch MSNBC to hear about Trump doing good, and Republicans don’t watch FoxNews to hear about Trump doing bad…
And, as Walter Cronkite would say, that’s the way it is.