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Is There A Bias In Expertise? Or Is The Problem Just In Silencing Discussion?

from the asking-the-wrong-questions dept

Jay Rosen points us to a worthwhile read by Lane Wallace in The Atlantic, concerning "the bias of veteran journalists." The basic concept is that veteran journalists think they know so much about a story that they have an angle going into the story, and only ask questions to support that story. It is not claiming that this is a political bias -- which is the usual charge thrown out at reporters -- but that the bias is in the fact that they think they know the story before they really know the story. As an example, she points to her own recent experience on a certain piece of technology:
A few weeks ago, I attended the public launch of a company's product that had, until that point, been kept tightly under wraps. The product involved a breakthrough approach and new technology that had the potential of having a revolutionary impact on its industry, as well on consumers around the world. Unlike most of the journalists covering the event, I was not an expert on that particular industry. It wasn't my normal "beat." The reason I was there was because I'd been interviewing the company's CEO over the previous several months for a book project. But that also meant that while I wasn't an expert about the industry in general, I was in the odd position of knowing more about the company's "secret" product than any other journalist in the room.

It was an eye-opening experience. A lot of major news outlets and publications were represented at the press conference following the announcement. A few very general facts about the product had been released, but the reporters had only been introduced to details about it a half hour earlier. There was still a lot about how it worked, how it differed from other emerging products, and why the company felt so confident about its evolution and economic viability, that remained to be clarified.

But the reporters' questions weren't geared toward getting a better understanding of those points. They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story. And from the questions that were being asked, I realized--because I had so much more information on the subject--that the reporters were missing a couple of really important pieces of understanding about the product and its use. And as the event progressed, I also realized that the questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren't being asked because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads and were focused only on getting the necessary data points to flesh out and back up what they already thought was the story.
Fascinating stuff. She then backs this up by pointing to a recent study on "experts" and how they tend to be worse at predicting things, often because they're so certain of the outcome that they miss key elements of why something is different, or why what they expect won't happen. That is, they approach the scenario with a knowing viewpoint, and therefore don't understand why it's a big deal. This leads her to quote an anecdotal claim by a friend who's an editor, saying that new beat reporters ask the best questions, because they don't assume they already know the answers to stuff.

I'll admit, after reading the column, my first thought was total agreement. It makes a lot of sense, right? And it certainly fits in well with Rosen's concept of the Church of the Savvy, which involves reporters who are more focused on using their soap box to make people think that they're connected to the inside and "savvy" with how everything works, that they focus more on describing the process, rather than reporting the facts (and debunking the non-facts). I tend to agree with that general sentiment, and this concept of "expert bias" initially felt right as well. In a different arena we see it all the time -- when we present stories about the economic impacts of copyright law or patent law, we often get lawyers who stop by to insist that this is ridiculous -- and we should trust them because they're the expert lawyers, in spite of the actual evidence.

And, no, I'm not claiming I'm above this kind of bias either. Everyone falls into this kind of trap at some point as well -- assuming you know more about a story than you really do. If you're crafting a story, you have a general model of "what the world looks like" and you certainly build your story based on that. But no one has a perfect crystal ball. No one can understand what variables will really be key in the future. No one can always get it right. At the very least, I try to learn from my own mistakes, and look back at why I was wrong (though, of course, no one gets that process right all the time either!).

Still, even after nodding my head through Wallace's column, after thinking about it a bit, I'm no longer sure I really believe it makes sense. Go back to her opening anecdote. In that case, she's actually as guilty as the reporters she's mocking. The reason she thinks they're missing the story is because she does think she's an expert: because of her time with the company, she felt she was more of an expert about that "secret" product, than those who knew the industry. And so she got upset that they didn't follow her pre-conceived storyline. Really, it's a bit of a kettle/pot scenario. What if those other reporters, who knew the industry, actually were right -- because they knew the wider industry and the wider impact of this product, rather than only getting the one side of the story from PR people over an "insider" session (savvy!).

On top of that, I'm not convinced about the "cub reporters ask better questions" claim either. I've been to plenty of press events, where those reporters don't ask any questions at all -- because they're not comfortable enough to do so -- and I've also been to events where clearly unknowledgeable reporters ask really bad questions -- or are more open to being "fed" press releases as stories, because it's nicely packaged up for those who don't know how to ask the hard questions.

So where does that leave us? Yes, there is a problem in the bias of expertise, where people are so sure of their opinion going in that they may miss some underlying key point. But I don't think that means that you want want naive folks covering a story either. What's needed is that convergence of voices. It's the discussion that comes out after all of this which presents the real value. It's one of the reasons why we tend to value the discussions on this site so much. If I say something stupid, people will call me on it, and there's a good discussion in the comments -- from which we all get to learn.

In thinking about it some more, it seems that the real issue is not the fact that one person has too much or too little expertise in a particular subject. It's that the whole spectrum is valuable -- and that spectrum comes out in discussion, not in positioning a single person as being the only person who can report on/talk about a particular subject. The problem comes in the idea that any particular situation involves "the word from on high," rather than the starting point for discussion.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:24am

    news should only be reported by uninformed simians. close tech dirt because you obvious have an angle going in.

     

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  2.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:39am

    Ask a child...

    This phoenomena might help explain why you get so much insightful, albeit simplistic, responses from small children without enough knowledge for bias....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:47am

    It's not expertise bias...

    ... it's institutional bias. The problem is that journalists are obsessed with journalism. They read each other. They pay attention to bylines. They know which of their members have the cushy jobs, and seek to emulate them. Nobody wants to be an outlier.

    This is why bloggers are seen as a threat. They usually have day jobs. They don't show up at Beltway cocktail parties. They're outsiders. Thus: wrong.

     

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  4.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:49am

    "She then backs this up by pointing to a recent study on "experts" and how they tend to be worse at predicting things, often because they're so certain of the outcome that they miss key elements of why something is different, or why what they expect won't happen. That is, they approach the scenario with a knowing viewpoint, and therefore don't understand why it's a big deal."

    The same can be said of all the executives at media distribution companies. Thanks I learned something important here. The people running these media companies cant see that things are changing at a rapid rate and the tools available now arent the end of the evolutionary line. Cool ...

     

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  5.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:51am

    Everyone has a bias

    I don't think there is such a thing as unbiased reporting. Everyone comes in with a set of perceptions. And then the editors/reporters have to determine what to feature in a certain amount of space/time, which means some stories get more play than others.

    So I believe in reading from multiple sources. My web home page is Google News. I don't read most of the stories, but I at least see the headlines so I can see how the same story is being covered by different reporters around the world.

     

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  6.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:53am

    Re: It's not expertise bias...

    The bloggers are just as biased. And a lot of them read each other, so it's another set of insiders, but insiders nonetheless.

     

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  7.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 9:55am

    Re: Re: It's not expertise bias...

    Yeah, but it's at least a different set (actually, several different sets) of insiders, so it's an improvement.

     

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  8.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 10:20am

    Re: Re: Re: It's not expertise bias...

    I'd say the blogosphere is pretty cliquey and some of them are in the pockets of the companies they cover, so I'm not sure it is an improvement. But if you read enough different people, perhaps you will get a decent overview. And you do need to read the comments, too, to hear some of the dissenting voices.

     

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  9.  
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    NAMELESS.ONE, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 10:28am

    ummm

    no comment

     

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  10.  
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    kyle clements (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 10:32am

    "The Wisdom of Crowds" talks about this kind of bias among experts.


    Imagine the story is a big puzzle, and each individual only has a few pieces. Experts in a particular field all have the same handful of pieces, while the non-experts have a random assortment of pieces. They may not have as many as the experts do, and a few may have pieces from a different puzzle entirely, but if aggregated properly, errors will cancel each other out, and the large group of non-experts will end up with a more complete picture than the experts will.


    I'm not saying tech experts at a tech convention is a bad thing, but only having tech experts could be. having a mix of tech reporters and regular reporters, and bloggers could result in better questions being asked overall.

     

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  11.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 10:37am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: It's not expertise bias...

    Oh yeah, you need to hear as many voices as you can manage. The benefit of the blogosphere is that it has several cliques (vs. "the Village" that manages most of the MSM.) The problem is that most people don't like to read people that they disagree with. (Which is why I take the IP trolls here with a grain of salt. At least they're paying attention.)

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 11:04am

    Re:

    Fail troll is fail.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 11:13am

    Re: Re:

    At Slashdot, the post you replied to might have a +X Funny mod on it. Here we don't have that, so there is no digital laugh-track to rely on in order to detect a joke.

    Even without a laugh-track, sometimes a joke is just a joke, not "lolitrollu".

     

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  14.  
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    Yogi, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 11:24am

    Truth it

    What happened to finding out the facts and reporting them?

    Shouldn't that be a simple and basic endeavor of journalism, or don't they do that anymore?

     

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  15.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 12:09pm

    Re: Truth it

    People disagree on what the facts are. For example, global warming. What is happening and its cause is a fact to many, but not all.

    Health care is another issue that seems to be lost in spin. Not everyone accepts the same information as fact.

    There are a lot of other issues. What journalism tends to do these days is to seek both sides to an issue, sometimes giving a voice to people who disagree with the facts, even when they are facts. If you do a story on whether or not Obama was born on American soil, and most people accept it as fact, but then you interview people who say that he wasn't, then you appear to have legitimized their view even though most would say it isn't based on fact.

     

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  16.  
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    BearGriz72 (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 12:50pm

    Re: ummm

    Then why did you?

     

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  17.  
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    Just Another Moron in a Hurry (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 1:51pm

    Mike, I'm not sure I agree with your disagreement..

    Let me hit the easy point first with your comment about cub reporters, who don't ask questions because they aren't comfortable, or who are fed press releases without asking hard questions. I don't think that this is the point she was making. An inexperienced reporter is going to have this problem no matter what. But an experienced reporter who is reporting on a subject they are not an expert in will have more confidence and be able to pick apart something that is nicely packaged, because they have had experience in other areas. If you've seen experienced reporters who take the nice package at face value, whether they are covering their normal beat, or branching out into something new, I would say that they probably just aren't very good investigative reporters.

    This leads up to the more challenging question of whether or not this expert bias is a problem. You state:
    "even after nodding my head through Wallace's column, after thinking about it a bit, I'm no longer sure I really believe it makes sense. Go back to her opening anecdote. In that case, she's actually as guilty as the reporters she's mocking. "

    This seems contradictory. It looks to me like you are saying that this expert bias doesn't exist because she is falling for it as well. But logically, if she's falling for it, then it must exist.

    It seems to me like Expert Bias exists, but it can stem from multiple sources. In one case, Lane recognizes that other reporters are biased because they are familiar and knowledgeable with the industry. In the other case, we recognize that Lane is biased because she has insider information.

    So, with two examples of this Expert Bias, and you even kicking in a few examples from your own past, why would you not think that it makes sense?

     

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  18.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 3:31pm

    Re: Everyone has a bias

    Suzanne Lainson wrote:

    Everyone comes in with a set of perceptions.

    But isn’t that just your perception?

     

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  19.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 3:33pm

    Critical Thinking

    The best answer we’ve come up with, ever since the ancient Greeks, is to take advantage of a well-known trait of human nature, namely that we are much better at spotting other people’s mistakes than our own.

    In other words, putting your ideas into the public arena for others to chew over and tear down is the best way to see whether they make sense or not.

    That’s how science works.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 4:13pm

    Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    But isn’t that just your perception?

    I presume you're kidding, but in case you're not, I'll say that
    it's a pretty commonly accepted assumption in cognitive psychology that our preexisting beliefs color our perceptions. We aren't operating as blank slates.

     

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  21.  
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    dorp, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 7:01pm

    Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    I presume you're kidding, but in case you're not, I'll say that
    it's a pretty commonly accepted assumption in cognitive psychology that our preexisting beliefs color our perceptions. We aren't operating as blank slates.


    I'll translate for those that like their answers direct: you said, "Yes."

     

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  22.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 7:17pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    I'll translate for those that like their answers direct: you said, "Yes."

    Hmm. Actually I said, No."

    It isn't just my perception.

     

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  23.  
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    dorp, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 7:33pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    Hmm. Actually I said, No."

    It isn't just my perception.


    You see, in your lame attempt to sound smart, you not only obfuscated your own position, you also missed a point being made.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 7:56pm

    Re: Everyone has a bias

    Suzanne Lainson wrote:

    It isn't just my perception.

    But you said “Everyone comes in with a set of perceptions”. Doesn’t that apply to you, too?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 8:21pm

    Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    But you said"Everyone comes in with a set of perceptions." Doesn't that apply to you, too?

    What was said was that it was JUST my perception. Perception though it may be, I'm not the only one who accepts this element of cognitive psychology. I never said that everyone had "unique" biases, only that we have biases. There are some significant collective cultural biases that we carry around together.

    Similarly, the idea that everyone has a bias is an idea that isn't unique to me. I share it with others.

    Here's the original sentence I was commenting about.

    But isn't that just your perception?

    No, it's not just MY perception. Perception though it may be, it's not mine alone.

    I'm sure the person writing it was making a joke and saying that anything that any of us says is just a matter of perception, and that does follow along with what I was saying. But for those who wonder where I came to my idea that there is no unbiased news, I was just filling in a bit of background.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 8:52pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    sometimes the truth is the truth even if it is funny.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    dorp, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 10:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    Riiight. Care to explain what YOU perceive "cognitive psychology" to be?

    Meanwhile, let me summarize what happened so far:

    You: Everyone has a set of perceptions.
    LD: Isn't that also perception that you have?
    You: No.
    LD: But you said everyone comes with them?
    You: No, because my perceptions are shared with other people, I do not come with perceptions.

     

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  28.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 12th, 2010 @ 10:50pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    Meanwhile, let me summarize what happened so far:

    You: Everyone has a set of perceptions.
    LD: Isn't that also perception that you have?
    You: No.
    LD: But you said everyone comes with them?
    You: No, because my perceptions are shared with other people, I do not come with perceptions.


    My version:

    ME: Everyone has perceptions which makes them biased in some fashion.
    LD: Isn't that just your perception?
    ME: No. It's not just my perception. I picked up the concept from my communications studies. So I wasn't the first one to think of this. It isn't an original idea of mine.
    LD: But you said everyone comes with them?
    ME: Yes, exactly. I have them too.

    We seem to have reached a point of agreement.

    Shall we now move on to, "Who's on First?"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 12th, 2010 @ 11:50pm

    Re: Everyone has a bias

    Suzanne Lainson wrote:

    ME: Yes, exactly. I have them too.

    So there are aspects of your reporting which are perception-free?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 13th, 2010 @ 12:21am

    Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    So there are aspects of your reporting which are perception-free?

    Over the years I was a freelancer for national magazines; I did a monthly column on women's sports business for Oxygen; I did two newsletters on sports management and marketing; I wrote for three tech business publications.

    Now I do a music business blog.

    I research the hell out of everything I write and always cite my sources and/or conduct interviews and quote people verbatim, so I never pull anything out of thin air. Therefore I'd like to think everything I write is accurate.

    But I have always decided what topics to cover. I write about what interests me and what I believe is topical and/or will interest my audience. So my perceptions are what determines what I write about.

    The very fact that I say to my readers or an editor, "This might interest you" is an indication of what I come across. Nothing just pops into my head without coming from something I have observed or learned about somewhere.

    I like to think I am covering topics, people, and companies that haven't been already covered to death by other writers, but I don't live in a vacuum. I'm processing info all the time.

     

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  31.  
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    nasch (profile), Apr 13th, 2010 @ 9:03am

    Re: Re: ummm

    Don't knock him, that is the first post of his I've actually been able to understand.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    identicon
    dorp, Apr 13th, 2010 @ 11:42am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    ME: No. It's not just my perception. I picked up the concept from my communications studies. So I wasn't the first one to think of this. It isn't an original idea of mine.

    It does not matter if you are the one that came up with the idea or not, nor how you acquired it. It is your perception which is also colored by your own experiences and unless you claim that someone has absolutely the same perception that they follow in absolutely the same way as you do, this perception of yours is SIMILAR to others, but is still unique to just you. Hence, it is just your perception.

    We seem to have reached a point of agreement.

    No, that is just your perception.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 13th, 2010 @ 12:22pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    Okay, why don't you tell me how you view the news? Do feel there are unbiased sources of news, and if so, what are they? How have you determined that? I'm curious what your viewpoint is on the subject?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 13th, 2010 @ 2:23pm

    Re: Everyone has a bias, that must include you

    Suzanne Lainson wrote:

    So there are aspects of your reporting which are perception-free?

    ... Therefore I'd like to think everything I write is accurate.

    So everybody else can be perception-free in the same way, then.

     

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  35.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 13th, 2010 @ 4:18pm

    Re: Re: Everyone has a bias, that must include you

    So everybody else can be perception-free in the same way, then.

    I said accurate, not perception-free. I accurately quote people, but who I choose to quote goes through my perceptual filter.

    But given that some of you believe some news is unbiased and perception-free, that's good news for journalism. That means you have faith in at least some news.

    So who do you trust for news? Who do you turn to for your information? And when you read a news story, are you confident you are learning everything you need to know, or do you feel there are holes, either intentional or otherwise?

    Journalism schools justify their existence in part on the idea that they train people in the art of reporting and that without that training, the news might become distorted.

     

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  36.  
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    sauce, Apr 14th, 2010 @ 1:15pm

    diversify your reading material as your securities

    Mhh, in the end this article has nbothing to do with bias in journalism anymore but realizing some usual facts of life.
    Young proffesionals could ask very good questions in their work area due to the missing prejudice but only in particular cases with many ifs after that and so on.
    Fact ist experts and even masterminds are narrowminded in the global view, that is why even in mathmatics there are several people who control each other although it is easier to see logic in in that area.
    So life is complicated thus we communicate to learn.
    A much better article would have been one presenting some proof about journalists intetionally being biased.

     

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  37.  
    identicon
    sauce, Apr 14th, 2010 @ 1:17pm

    diversify your reading material as your securities

    Mh, in the end this article has nothing to do with bias in journalism anymore but realizing some usual facts of life.
    Young professionals could ask very good questions in their work area due to the missing prejudice but only in particular cases with many ifs after that and so on.
    Fact is experts and even masterminds are narrow minded in the global view, that is why even in mathematics there are several people who control each other although it is easier to see logic in in that area.
    So life is complicated thus we communicate to learn.
    A much better article would have been one presenting some proof about journalists intentionally being biased.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    identicon
    dorp, Apr 14th, 2010 @ 4:07pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    Okay, why don't you tell me how you view the news? Do feel there are unbiased sources of news, and if so, what are they? How have you determined that? I'm curious what your viewpoint is on the subject?

    That "accuracy" that you seem to be proud of is merely a perception for most topics. The fact that you have many people sharing the perception with you on them does not change that fact, nor hiding behind PSY101 lingo.

    Even a factually accurate statement can be made biased. Did a person get killed or slaughtered? Did a politician lie or misspeak? Or an accurate piece of data can be presented while another, equally accurate piece of data, is omitted, changing perception of the topic.

    A statement can be made that provides a picture of what has happened and the state the things are in, but still bias a person one way or another. Hiding behind saying that "statement was accurate" is not enough and the actual difficulty of journalism is reporting something that is both factually accurate and unbiased. Which, despite claims by some news source, is just not happening.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Apr 14th, 2010 @ 4:28pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Everyone has a bias

    Even a factually accurate statement can be made biased. Did a person get killed or slaughtered? Did a politician lie or misspeak? Or an accurate piece of data can be presented while another, equally accurate piece of data, is omitted, changing perception of the topic.

    That's EXACTLY my point. That was what I was saying from the beginning.

    Something can be accurate, yet still biased.

    I don't believe there is unbiased reporting because every reporter decides what questions to ask. You can accurately report the answers, but if you don't ask the right questions, you predetermine the results.

    We are in TOTAL agreement on this.

    I read multiple sources of news to get a more complete picture of every story.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
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    Matches Malone, Apr 16th, 2010 @ 10:52am

    Someone Should point this out to Scoble...

    He seems to believe that he's the guy, at least in the tech arena. I think this would be a good lesson in humility for him....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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