Wednesday, July 4, 2012

You are the news

Look at this screenshot from early January. Enlarge it if you need to. Contemplate it. Just another day in the New York Times?

Well, no. The headlines here are from Fox News. (Screenshot for proof.) This faux home page was created by Dan Schultz, the MIT grad student also responsible for Truth Goggles, using his NewsJack point-and-click “remixer.” I've lifted it from Jonathan Stray at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard's website.

Stray's blog post is titled "How Do You Tell When the News is Biased? It depends on how you see yourself."

Stray cites various studies that have been done that found that perception of bias in news reports had a lot to do with the news consumer's perception of the news source, not the content. Some, for example, involved showing Al Jazeera content under other banners.

This is of interest to me as a journalist and a Buddhist. Both involve trying to remove the filters from our perceptions that color our understanding. And both require detachment from praise and blame -- one pair in the Eight Vicissitudes -- to operate with integrity.

People I respect in the Buddhist community, who are working to see the world with clarity and compassion, often dismiss my profession as inherently unmindful. But maybe the mindfulness is in the mind of the perceiver.

Stray talks about "hostile media effort," in which both sides in a story think the story in attacking them.

Like a lot of experimental psychological research, the hostile media effect suggests we’re not as smart as we think we are. We might like to think of ourselves as impartial judges of credibility and fairness, but the evidence says otherwise. Liberals and conservatives can (and often do) believe the same news report is biased against both their views; they aren’t both right.

...Communications researcher Scott Reid has proposed that we can explain the hostile media effect through the psychological theory of self-categorization. This is a theory about personal identity and group identity, and it says that we “self-stereotype,” placing conceptual labels on ourselves just as we might make assumptions about other people. We all have multiple identities of this kind: gender, age, political preferences, race, nationality, subculture, and so on.

are is more about Reid's experiments. Stray's article lays it out in more detail. There's even a chart.

For my purposes, this is the nut: Our perception of bias changes depending on the self-identity we currently have in mind.Those self-identities are insidious. In Buddhism, we generally just call it the Self. The Self is the thing that we create in our minds then treat as a solid, unchanging real thing that has to be dressed up and defended and credentialed and compared to all the other Selves out there. We feel good about our Self or bad about it, depending on how we think it's doing in regard to all the Other Selves.

That opposition between Self and Other creates suffering. It leads to feelings of inferiority or superiority -- or at best, separateness.

Stray suggests that the way for journalists to overcome accusations of bias from all sides is to downplay the divisions, to not pit one side against the other. (Obviously some journalists don't give a shit about this; I'd argue that they're not true journalists but propagandists.)

The trick would be to shy away from invoking divisive identities, preferring frames that allow members of a polarized audience to see themselves as part of the same group. ... Encouraging the audience to perceive itself as unified — this seems simplistic, or na├»ve. But the consideration of identity is foundational to fields like mediation and conflict resolution. Experimental evidence suggests that it might be important in journalism too.

In all of life, seeing life or society as "all" seems to me to be the best way to reduce complaints because it reduces suffering about problems that are only problems if you're protecting a Self.

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