Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Media, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The first step to recovery is admitting your own bias

Plenty of people like to throw around claims that this or that media platform is biased. Sometimes they’re right; other times the allegation instead reflects the bias of the person making the charge. If you look for biases only in people other than yourself, or in groups other than your tribe, that just means you’re biased. The first step toward overcoming your biases is admitting you almost certainly have them.

A bias is any disposition that interferes with your rational thinking and capacity to learn the truth. Classic biases are prejudices against people in “outgroups” (as opposed to your “ingroup”) and people with different physical characteristics. Owing largely to America’s history with slavery, many white people in the U.S. were extremely, even viciously, biased against black people. Some still are, despite the large strides we’ve made as a culture toward overcoming racism.

It’s possible to have all sorts of biases (Wikipedia collects a long list). We want an impartial mediator in financial disputes precisely because the conflicting parties both stand to gain from the case going their way. Note that the mediator properly is impartial only with respect to which party gains but is “partial” to discovering the facts of the matter and reaching a just outcome.

The confirmation bias trap

Unless we specifically counteract it, we all tend to suffer from confirmation bias. That is, we tend to notice facts and arguments that seem to support our cherished views and to ignore facts and arguments that seem to run counter to our views. We can work against this bias by intentionally seeking out the best arguments from opposing camps, “steelmanning” those arguments (considering them in their strongest form), and developing the habit of caring more about the truth than about defending our previous positions. We have to be willing to change our minds, to “update our priors” as they say, in light of new evidence and clearer thinking.

Here is a good rule of thumb regarding claims of media bias: Don’t make the claim unless you back it up with specific examples, and don’t believe others when they make the claim unless they provide convincing examples.

I was disappointed when Heidi Ganahl’s campaign issued a media release accusing 9News of “biased reporting” and even “bias and slander” (a serious charge!) but did not include in the release a single example. Ganahl refused to attend a debate sponsored by 9News over this. Unfortunately and ironically, many Colorado conservatives have taken to making unsubstantiated claims of bias against various media outlets, and especially 9News—a practice which itself plays into and perpetuates a bias. It is so much easier to gin up hatred of “the media” than to persuade voters of your policy positions.

I also thought Ganahl’s decision was dumb on strategic grounds. Even if 9News were biased in some respects, it is a widely viewed and broadly respected television news network. If Ganahl has real examples of bias by the channel, she could have aired those during the debate to gain sympathy among the viewing audience. Generally speaking, if political candidates can’t even face hostile reporters (let’s assume for the moment that term applies in this case) I don’t know how they expect us to trust them to navigate serious crises they may face in office.

My editor, Mike Krause, did a lot better job talking about media bias when he appeared on Mandy Connell’s radio show a few weeks back. He gave a specific example of a biased article from 9News last year, “Proposed bill seeks to end exploitation of Colorado farmworkers.” I agree that article is biased. It does give some voice to opponents of the bill, but basically it cheerleads for the bills passage. It presumes that the bill accurately defines various “rights” and even quotes one critic of Colorado agricultural businesses as saying some of those businesses engage in slavery. It’s an opinion piece masquerading as news. Krause also pointed to a social-justice puff piece at 9News about “gender-affirming pronouns.”

Confused journalists

Notice that overcoming bias is not the same thing as covering “both sides” equally. One problem is that for many issues there are more than two reasonable positions. Another is that many issues are firmly resolved. Here is an obvious example. A few years ago Denver hosted a flat-earth convention. Does an “unbiased” reporter have to treat the flat-earth view with equal seriousness as the spherical-earth view? Obviously not. That would be stupid. It’s perfectly reasonable for a journalist to cover such an event starting with the assumption that the participants are unserious or delusional.

It does not help when journalists themselves have no idea what objectivity means. Recently Colorado Public Radio’s May Ortega claimed that “the definition of objectivity as we’ve always known it has been created by white, cisgender men.” Okay, is her claim objectively true? If she says it is, then her claim is self-defeating. If she says it isn’t, then we have no reason to believe her.

Objectivity means that something is the case regardless of someone’s opinion on the matter. The earth is spherical even though some people claim it is flat, even if their “lived experience” (or whatever) suggests to them that it is flat. Joe Biden won the 2020 election fair and square, despite some people’s claims to the contrary.

Lori Lizarraga, who left 9News after accusing the station of “discrimination,” more reasonably said that objectivity does not mean the same thing as neutrality. I’m relying on Corey Hutchins’s summary and have not listened to these remarks in the broader context of the discussion in which they were made. I suspect that Ortega was simply misusing the term objectivity to mean something like neutrality.

Having a point of view is not the same thing as being biased or non-objective. You can’t learn that the earth is spherical as some mystical insight; you can learn that only by using your senses to make observations and to listen to others explain what they’ve discovered about our planet. You can learn objective facts only through your own experiences. You can’t step outside of yourself.

What you can do is strive to overcome your biases to bring your beliefs into better alignment with the objective facts. And, to adapt a saying of Jesus, you should first work on identifying and overcoming your own biases before trying to cast out the biases of others.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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