Super Tuesday Confirmation Bias Lesson, Or Why We Can Never Trust Media Analysis

Checking the Republican primary results as Super Tuesday neared an end, I got an unexpected demonstration of confirmation bias in the news media, so vivid that it could be used in an educational video.

On CNN, John King, Gloria Borgia and the gang were analyzing the razor-close contest in Ohio, widely regarded as a must-win for Rick Santorum, just as Mitt Romney seemed to be pulling ahead for good. Welcome news for Romney? Not so fast!

Gloria Borger, whose contempt for all things Republican is always writ large on her face and unmistakably expressed by her tones of disdain (Does she even attempt to appear objective? It doesn’t seem so, as her demeanor when discussing GOP politics always suggests to me that she thinks she is covering some kind of demeaning novelty event, like a four-poster bed race or a dwarf-bowling, that the audience knows as well as she does is a colossal waste of time), vigorously took the floor and emphasized that Romney was winning in the very communities where Democrats were strongest, and losing to Santorum where Republicans usually did well. This, she said, eyes rolling (“I can’t believe I’m here talking about Republicans when I could be home watching a repeat of ‘Big Bang Theory!'”) showed that Romney would be in likely trouble if he were the nominee in November, since his strength would be wasted in Democratic strongholds and he wouldn’t be getting the support of the blue-collar types that a Republican presidential hopeful couldn’t win Ohio without. “To illustrate Gloria’s point,” King interjected, and then produced a computer graphic showing Romney’s fatally flawed vote patterns. Everyone nodded sagely. Mitt’s victory in Ohio showed that he was a loser.

Meanwhile, over at Fox, they were discussing the exact same phenomenon. Local politics maven Michael Barone weighed in, and said that this could bode well for Romney in November. John McCain, though losing Ohio in 2008, still “cleaned up” in the blue color districts, noted Barone, so even though Santorum was beating Romney there tonight, they could be still counted upon to go Mitt’s way in 2012 when Obama was the opposition. Meanwhile, the well-educated, wealthier areas that gave Barack Obama the critical swing state’s electoral votes that year have in the past swung Republican, and Mitt’s showing with that group tonight just might indicate that he could seriously cut into Obama’s strength, taking the state red. And Michale Barone knows his stuff, the Fox-ites gushed.

Astonishing. The CNN pundits who fervently wish the GOP to lose looked at the data and told viewers that it was a harbinger of a Democratic victory. The exact same data, to the fair and balanced Republican-lovers at Fox, meant that a Romney ticket might just triumph. I don’t think either group was being dishonest or trying to deceive, but both showed themselves to be negligent, incompetent, and biased. It is their job to recognize their partisan tendencies, and at least attempt to adjust for them. Surely they have heard of confirmation bias, the well-established tendency of human beings to see facts through the distorting prism of their own preferences, conclusions and desires, and to subconsciously interpret them to confirm fondly held beliefs. Knowing how powerful it is and how it is the absolute foe of the journalist’s prime directives, independence, objectivity and truth, professional journalists are obligated to try to minimize confirmation bias’s effects.

Yet they don’t. They don’t even try.

What does this mean? It means that we cannot, ever, ever, ever, trust the news media’s analysis of anything.



4 thoughts on “Super Tuesday Confirmation Bias Lesson, Or Why We Can Never Trust Media Analysis

  1. The presence of confirmation bias doesn’t imply the absence of efforts to eradicate it. You’re fairly definitive here though that “they don’t even try.”

    I think it’s a great example you’ve raised here, but what’s your evidence for that claim?

    • Because I’m giving them credit for not being idiots. Being objective and fair usually requires looking at alternative interpretations. In this case, the Fox and CNN angles are pretty obvious—while I was listening to Gloria, I was thinking, “How does she know it won’t work the opposite way?” There are veteran reporters—if they don’t give a full analysis of options to eliminate the taint of their own biases bias, I think it’s fair to assume they just don’t want to make the effort out of laziness or arrogance.

  2. I think there’s another bias that’s shared by nearly everyone in the media, right or left: The tendency to want to report every race as close and exciting.

    Looking at the delegate math, it is extremely unlikely that Romney can lost this primary race. Just as, after a certain point four years ago, it was extremely unlikely that Obama could lose the Democratic primary. But the media has a strong bias towards trying to report all races as exciting and close right up to the last moment.

    I predict that come October MOST of the media will be saying that it’s a close race between Romney and Obama, regardless of what’s actually going on.

    • Absolutely…gotta be a horse race. And that’s misrepresentation too. If its a blow-out, say so, and let the chips fall where they may. Great point. And that’s also confirmation bias–they want a close race, so they’ll see signs of one that may not be there.

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