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Partisan Politics Makes You Dumber

Two recent pieces by Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam describe ongoing psychological research which shows that people on different sides of controversial political issues, when shown identical news reports on that topic, will both conclude that the coverage is biased against their own side. Interestingly, those who are better informed are more likely to fall into this trap, because they feel that news coverage lacks contextual information that would support their perspective. Perhaps even more striking, this tendency is actually stronger when the coverage itself is less partisan, because obviously biased reports or propaganda are easier to dismiss. As one researcher puts it, "If I think the world is black, and you think the world is white, and someone comes along and says it is gray, we will both think that person is biased." Those who are politically neutral on a given issue, in contrast, are likely to see coverage as relatively balanced, or to see the flaws and strengths of both sides.

The biases in media coverage, and the possibility (or impossibility) of objectivity are subjects of fierce debate, and have been for years. What does research like that described in these pieces mean for these controversies? Is the problem the news, or those watching it?

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First of all, I haven’t read either of Vedantam’s articles, so this basically boils down to an opinion based on personal observation.

We’re not so much concerned with small contextual bias that may be taken either way so much as we are concerned with blatant misreporting and gross misrepresentation of events. See the Reuters’ foolishness There’s not much doubt that the leftist liberal media gives itself much more leeway as far as bias is concerned, and seeks to hold the right to a stricter standard.

More on this later when I’m out of the office.

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