Friday, March 23, 2012

Confirmation Bias and the News

We have talked a lot over the past semester about the role of the media in fostering gridlock.  One particular aspect we have discussed is the fragmentation of the modern media and the ways in which this growing trend has exacerbated partisan polarization. It used to be the case that Americans got their news from the same few sources, which provided some sort of shared national consciousness or experience.  This has all but disappeared with the rise of multiple, diverse media outlets: not only do people get their news from numerous sources, but “the days of loyalty to a particular news organization on a particular piece of technology in a particular form are gone.”  In a 2010 survey, the Pew Research Center found that news has become “omnipresent” in a digital era, leading to the rise of the “participatory news consumer.”

Many have argued that the fragmentation of the media has intensified political polarization because individuals are only seeking out news sources that confirm preconceived viewpoints. In psychology, this is known as the confirmation bias, a common cognitive error that everyone is prone to committing. Confirmation bias is “a form of selection bias in collecting evidence”: decision-makers tend to “actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.” With the rise of news sources that openly lean toward one side of the ideological spectrum, the concern is that conservatives are only seeking out conservative news sources while liberals are only seeking liberal news sources. To some extent, this theory may be borne out in the results of the Pew Survey, which found that “the majority of online news consumers (57%) say they routinely rely on just two to five websites for their news. Only 11% say they get their news from more than five websites and 21% regularly rely on just one site.”

This is all quite unfortunate: the reality is that digital platforms give Americans more opportunity than ever before to seek out new information. This instant access to virtually unlimited sources of information has the potential to open people up to new thought processes by exposing them to a wide variety of material. Yet, through our own cognitive biases, we may be squandering this opportunity.

Nevertheless, despite widespread consensus on the prevalence of confirmation bias in modern news-seeking, I wanted to offer up one alternative finding that may caution against such an assumption. A study from Ohio State University suggests that such concerns may actually be unfounded. This study “discovered that even the most partisan readers visit mainstream news sites, as well as partisan sites that express views that oppose their own. In fact, as visits to partisan sites increased, the researchers noted a corresponding increase in visits to sites that represented the opposite extreme, as well as more mainstream, general news sources.” The authors of the study concluded that, despite the proliferation of partisan website that would make it easy for people to avoid opposing viewpoints, “people do not appear to be immersing themselves in sites that only reinforce their own opinions.”

What do people think? Could we be overestimating the effects of confirmation bias?


  1. Even if people are visiting websites that generally lean toward the opposite viewpoint as their own, it is probably with intentions other than neutral news-gathering. With the polarization and conformation basis characteristic of the modern news audience, extreme partisans check in with the other side to see what they can get fired up about and even--in many cases--to reinforce their own views. The fact that they are visiting extreme ideological websites on the other side seems to confirm that they want to see that extremity as the core of the other side and give themselves more reason to hate it. Thus, the recognition that a tea-partyer might occasionally flip over to MSNBC indicates she wants to justify her view, at least more so than if she just occasionally flipped over to, say, CNN.

  2. I’d have to agree with the Jake. The problem is not that people are only visiting one news source; the problem is people only believe information from that one source. There is a mindset that has proliferated throughout American society that only certain news sources speak the supposed truth. For liberals this is the likes of MSNBC and the Huffington post, while for conservatives it’s Fox News and the Drudge Report. The problem simply has been the politicizing of the news. In earlier decades, there were the basic news channels that reported the undisputed news. Now with the rise of 24 hour news cycle and the internet this undisputed news is nowhere to be found. This bias tiered system has only accelerated and worsened the polarization and gridlock that is present in politics today. I hope we can one day return to a place where we at least agree on the reported facts.

  3. Media consumptions is changing so fast with the introduction of different technologies and the microtargetign of news consumers -- I just wonder how accurate a poll taken prior to 2008 is w/ respect to what is happeneing now.