How Do Journalists Think?: A Proposal for the Study of Cognitive Bias in Newsmaking

S. Holly Stocking

Paget H. Gross

We know that news is a phenomenon subjectively perceived by professionals whose criteria are arbitrary, idiosyncratic, rigid, and apparently about as explicable as jazz was by its great exponent, Louis Armstrong. What is News? we inquire. "If you gotta ask," says the journalist, "you'll never know."

Yet far from being self-evident truth, the idea of news is elusive indeed. Ezekiel Makunike, a Zimbabwean journalism educator of renown, used to tell the story of going to visit Elie Abel, then Dean at Columbia.

Zeke was miffed at the absence of reporters and cameramen to record the arrival of his distinguished delegation, and Elie told him: "Don't be silly. Your getting here is not news. If the plane had crashed that would have been news. That would have been man bites dog." In telling the story, Makunike would say, "I wondered a little about this preoccupation that the press would have with our non-arrival compared to its total lack of interest in our being there, but mainly I was fascinated by the dog and the man. If a man bites a dog where I come from, we assume he's crazy, and not a subject for news coverage. But if a dog bites a man, that dog is probably dangerous, and could be rabid, and may be at large. People should know about it. That's news."

The Gatekeeper studies showed how editors' personal values and interests shape what becomes the news. Later environmental studies described how the context within which the professional is working has as much to do with what turns out to be news as does whatever is going on outside where we may naively believe that the phenomenon happens.

Now, without downgrading work already done in examining news, newswork, and newsworkers, Stocking and Gross suggest that recent sociologists' studies in the way reality is constructed by journalists (e.g., Tuchman) should be supplemented by studies of the same process from the viewpoint of cognitive science, specifically research on cognitive biases and errors in journalism.

Their argument is clearly stated and inviting. Journalists are people, and like everyone else they understand events through the interaction between experience and prior knowledge in memory: their uniquely individual cognitive maps. The result, far from being the mythical mirror view of reality, can be as many different versions of the observed event or circumstance as there are people observing it.

If journalists better understood the common potential biases they share, not as careless or willful slanters and distorters, but simply as humans involved in the intellectual process of gaining knowledge, they would probably be better equipped if not to mirror life, at least to paint it in more realistic colours.

An interesting footnote is provided by Stocking and Gross's observation, quoting a 1987 study, that cognitive models have already "begun to transform the study of mass media effects. Among other things they have prompted us to revise the theory that audiences are passive...."

This line of thought underlay a monograph edited by the late C. Edward Wilson and published by the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism -- in 1974. Its title: Mind Over Message: How People Distort, Evade and Forget Mass Media Contents. Its thesis: "The mass media manipulate people far less than they suppose, and people manipulate mass media messages far more than they know."

Malcolm Muggeridge, a visiting colleague of Ted's and mine at about the same time, used to despair of journalism, a craft that he practised so well and so engagingly. "Andrew,' he would say, "I'm afraid it's a bit of a busted flush." As we all know, a busted flush is the poker-table symbol of broken dreams. The player has two, then three, then four cards of the same suit and then -- the fifth card doesn't match. Busted. But there's always another hand. The poker player keeps on trying.

Similarly with Mug. I am certain that the despair he felt about journalism had to do with his instinctive understanding of the great gulf between the simplistic myth of "objective" mass media and the fact of the rich and complex variety in what people perceive reality to be -- whether they are reporting it as journalists, or experiencing it as readers and viewers. We prophesy in part and we know in part indeed. A predicament of biblical proportions.

"Why," I would ask him, "if you take such a dim view of it, do you make the effort to create such superb journalism?"

"Ah, my boy," he would say, "I regard myself as similar to the piano player in a brothel. I play my best, and, when the opportunity arises, I slip in a bar or two of Abide With Me."

So with the rest of us. To understand that one is human should not make a journalist despair any more than should the knowledge that his or her readers are similarly afflicted. We must soldier on with the conviction that although our work is humanly fragmented and biased, it can also (according to my cognitive map at least) be humanely enlightening and uplifting.

Our efforts cannot but be helped by the greater self-knowledge that will doubtless result from the kind of research suggested by Stocking and Gross.

Notes

1
Gunter, B. (1987). Poor reception: Misunderstanding and forgetting broadcast news. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


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