Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bias and Coverage of War

Can a journalist cover a violent conflict objectively if that journalist's child serves in the military for one side of the conflict? The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so. He writes

"this is a somewhat obvious point except to propagandists, reporters are capable of actually separating out their personal interests from their coverage."

and praises a writer that discovers

"it is possible to cover the Middle East fairly, despite your entanglements."

I don't really disagree with Goldberg's take on the specific issue he writes about. I think, however, he is far too dismissive of the role unconscious bias plays in our assessment of reality. Goldberg claims only propagandists would think reporters are incapable of "separating out their personal interests from their coverage." But it is not merely propagandists that would question one's capability of objectivity: many psychologists would too.

Cognitive bias "is a person's tendency to make errors in judgment based on cognitive factors." It is not that a person knowingly behaves according to his or her biases, but that his or her biases affect how he or she views reality and makes decisions. For example, Confirmation bias "is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true." There are many other types of cognitive biases: the point is that even when we believe we are assessing the world objectively, or making decisions rationally, we may not be.

Of course, regular human experience tells us this is true. We expect judges with a conflict of interest to recuse themselves not merely to avoid the appearance of a biased decision, but to avoid actual biased decisions. Pharmaceutical representatives buy lunches for doctors and nurses, and I would think (hope?) doctors believe that has no influence on them--but the lunches keep coming. People do all sorts of things not only claiming but believing they are acting and thinking objectively, when in fact they are not.

It is beyond obvious that our assumptions and beliefs affect how we interpret reality, what reality one chooses to report, and how one reports on it. If you trust America's intentions in war, you may find 27 civilian deaths caused by U.S. military violence an unfortunate accident or collateral damage in a larger necessary cause; if you believe America's intentions in war are malevolent, or even if you believe they are empty, you will interpret those 27 deaths differently. Even if you attempt to be objective, you will still make decisions about whether and how to talk about them.

Is this to say that a reporter should not be allowed to cover a conflict when his or her child is directly involved in the conflict? Of course not. What sort of knowledge, context, background, and nuance would we miss if we insisted that our reporters be as disconnected from the realities of a situation as possible? If we expect a reporter to be knowledgeable about a situation, we must accept that the reporter's knowledge may come from his or her close geographic, cultural, political, historical, or familial connection to that situation. It would be absurd to claim that no Americans should cover American military conflicts because of the biases inherent in the venture. But so too, I think, it is silly to claim that reporters will be able to separate coverage entirely from their "entanglements," and it is disingenuous to think that only propagandists are skeptical whether reporters are "capable of separating out their personal interests from their coverage." The problem is in assuming something called "journalistic objectivity" is a sacrosanct concept that readers should believe in. One's vantage point matters. Different individuals will see the world differently due to a whole host of factors. As an observer of the world, I must always be aware that my own biases affect how I am viewing that world. And as a reader, I must always be aware that writers' biases affect how they are viewing the world. Instead of viewing this as a journalistic sin, I recognize this, keep an awareness of this, and (if I'm inclined) try to get coverage from a variety of perspectives.

It is not that I suspect journalists with personal entanglements will deliberately try to deceive. In many cases, I would expect reporters to try their best to report objectively, to rationally assess the world as it is and try to convey that knowledge. But I think they will do a better job at this not by pretending their biases don't exist, but by being aware of them (and perhaps acknowledging them to the reader). Self-consciousness about one's own likelihood to misinterpret reality can help one avoid misinterpreting reality.

I'm not sure how somebody can respond to a violent conflict objectively--from a human perspective, I'm not even sure they should. Of course, from a journalistic perspective, reporters should and must try present objective coverage. That doesn't mean, however, that we must pretend subjective responses play no part in how one describes a violent conflict. And one shouldn't assume it is only malicious propagandists that would have doubts about reporter objectivity.

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