COLUMN: Preconceived biases colour readings

Wright Turn

In journalism, you get used to criticism, both contructive and otherwise. It’s most often the otherwise that comes our way.

We journalists are naive, irresponsible, ill-informed, ill-mannered, uneducated, obtuse, obstreperous, unscrupulous, unethical, and the most common – biased. Not necessarily all at once or, if all at once, not necessarily in that order.

The truth is, the nature of journalism is such that without that sort of feedback, you start to wonder if anyone is paying attention at all.

And while I’ll readily admit we’re hardly without fault (although we do try hard here at the  News Bulletin), and that there are plenty of poor journalists (just like there are plenty of poor plumbers, teachers, doctors, social workers and gardeners – their work is just less available for wide public scrutiny) the thing is, nine times out of 10 (just a guesstimate, by the way), the criticism is more a reflection of the critic (the reader) than the material critiqued.

Let me explain – and please bear with me, the following tangent really does return to the point.

I recently read What the Dog Saw, a collection of articles by Malcolm Gladwell, a brilliant Canadian-raised author (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) and journalist, previously published in The New Yorker.

In the final piece in the collection, about job interviews and our general perceptions of people, Gladwell writes that we typically make instantaneous ‘snap’ judgments about the people being interviewed, whether we ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ them.

Such judgments can be made in a split-second upon meeting a total stranger, based on something as simple as a handshake, a few words of greeting or even just a gesture or posture. What’s more, considerable research shows that seldom do those initial impressions differ after an hour, 90 minutes, an entire working day. It doesn’t matter how long we spend with the person, whatever our initial judgment, everything after – what the interviewee says, does or shows us – is coloured by that initial, split-second estimation of who that person is.

If we decide an individual is self-confident, everything he/she says will be seen through the ‘self-confident’ lens. If, however, this person is seen as arrogant – a subtle difference, but one with decidedly negative connotations – the same actions and words are now up against that ‘arrogant’ judgment.

My feeling is it’s the same with newspaper readers, all of whom bring their own ideas, biases and preconceived notions to everything they read.

Some are better than others at putting all that aside and reading what’s presented to them objectively. Others not so much.

So, readers might see a headline and, with the wealth of information and knowledge, as well as biases and perceptions, already incorporated into their consciousness, they make a snap judgment about what they’re about to read.

Before they’ve read a word beyond the headline, often before they’ve even picked up the paper, they have a preconceived idea what a story is about.

Thus, what they read is already coloured (be it rose-coloured or something decidely more bleak) by the lens of their own idea of what they expect they’re going to read.

And like the judgments described by Gladwell, it rarely matters whether two or three or six sides of a story are presented, if a person expects to read a story with a bias favouring a certain leaning, that’s what will be perceived. Any balancing information, if noticed at all, will carry decidedly less ‘weight’ in that person’s reading.

The snap judgment, itself informed by the reader’s earlier exposures, holds.

Just something for ardent readers to think about as they digest the various stories on some of the more controversial issues going on in Nanaimo these days.