Like-Minded Media

Like-Minded Media

People really do seek out news coverage that confirms their own beliefs.


The media as a mirror. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

When it comes to political news, we want to be validated, not challenged. This according to a study by Ohio State University communications professor Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick.

Her team assessed volunteers' political opinions. Weeks later, they gave them a chance to read online articles with obvious political slants. Tracking software showed that they clicked more on articles that echoed their own views, and spent more time reading them. Knobloch-Westerwick says this differed from past studies, which simply asked people what they read or watched.

And the earlier research couldn't show that people prefer messages that confirm their attitudes.

She says that's probably because people like to think they're more interested in opposing views than they actually are. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Many newspapers, magazines, or other news media claim to provide objective coverage. Although the definition of "objective" is itself the topic of debate, generally this means that they attempt to report facts without bias or prejudice, except in places reserved for expressing an opinion, like the editorial page. Many news organizations use standard professional practices to promote objectivity, like keeping the editorial and news staff separate.

Of course, almost every news organization gets accused of bias by someone at some point; some deal with these accusations on a daily basis. However, in the past two decades, more and more media outlets either proudly advertise their political point of view, from Rush Limbaugh's conservative radio program to liberal magazines like Mother Jones, or at least take an obvious slant while winking at objectivity, like Fox News on the right or MSNBC on the left. The splintering of television into hundreds of cable and satellite channels, as well as the proliferation of Internet blogs, have made it easier to cater to people's specific political beliefs. A news organization doesn't have to appeal to everyone; it can give a smaller group the slant they want to hear.

Although most people like to think of themselves as open-minded and objective, this study suggests how powerful biased news can be. In this study, the researchers wanted to observe people's true behavior as accurately as possible. So they introduced two key elements: first, that the volunteers looked at the news reports several weeks after they answered the political survey, and second, that when the volunteers did come back, they didn't know that the computer was tracking their online reading. These elements helped to keep people from thinking that their behavior was being watched and evaluated.

As you heard, they found that people do, in fact, prefer to look at information that reinforces their own beliefs. The volunteers demonstrated this in two different ways: they clicked more often on stories that matched their own political views, and they spent more time reading those stories than stories that contradicted their opinions.

Asking people up-front where they get their news tends to yield different results. It's much harder to find evidence that people prefer biased media in these studies. That could be because people like to think of themselves as open-minded and unbiased—or, perhaps, that they prefer not to give away their political leanings to researchers. Similarly, studies of other kinds of bias, including race and gender bias, also reveal clearer patterns of prejudice when the purpose of the study is masked, or when the experiment is designed to reveal subtle, unconscious behaviors that are difficult to control.

So is all this biased media a bad thing? That's up to you to decide. Knobloch-Westerwick says that although our preference for media echo-chambers may blind us to opposing views and even spread misinformation, it also seems to make people more politically aware and involved than they would be otherwise. The question is, are we becoming a nation of people who know how to shout, but not really how to listen?

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What was the basic conclusion of this study?
  2. How did the researchers try to create the right conditions to observe the volunteers' natural behavior?
  3. Do you think our preference for biased news is a good or bad thing? Why?
  4. Is any news truly objective? Explain your answer.

You may want to check out the July 3, 2009 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: dinosaurs get re-sized, why we favor a biased media, people who never forget a face, and more.

Going Further

For Educators

In the NYTimes Learning Network lesson plan Slanted Sentences: Exploring Bias in the News, students look for biased words in news articles, suggest synonyms, then rewrite the sentences to demonstrate how word choice can alter meaning.

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