Finding What You're Looking For
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Two weeks ago, Atlanta resident Robert Aaron Long killed eight people in cold blood. Why?
In the aftermath of the shooting, news outlets on the left had an answer. Six of the eight victims were Asian. Hence, Long was a racist, and his actions were just another example of the growing violence against Asian-Americans during the pandemic.
Reporting on the center and right looked very different. Centrist sources like the Associated Press declined to speculate on motives, and conservative sources noted that Long saw his victims as instruments of sexual temptation.
After two weeks, it’s obvious that the left overreacted (and many of their initial news stories have been taken down and headlines altered). From the detailed police interrogation to interviews with family members, it’s clear that Long was a tortured soul with mental health issues. His personal history included standing up against racist events at his high school while at the same time pursuing a purity-based Evangelical Christianity. Even outlets on the left like the Washington Post are now publishing detailed exposes on the decidedly non-racist motives for Long’s crime.
It’s a story with a lesson for people concerned about fake news. People find what they are looking for. That includes journalists, bloggers, and those on Twitter anxious to amplify their voices above the din of popular culture.
When I was a kid, my dad told me that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I didn’t find out that this tendency had a name until I went to college: confirmation bias. We are biased to find evidence that confirms our beliefs about the world.
Experiment after experiment has confirmed this tendency. Tell moms that sugar causes hyperactive behavior in kids, and they’ll verify it even after you secretly give them diet soda. Tell college kids that a song played backwards contains an occult message, and they’ll find it whether it’s there or not. Give a detective or prosecutor a suspect and it becomes easy to find incriminating evidence.
This is exactly what happened in the Atlanta tragedy. It’s not that left-leaning journalists intentionally biased their reporting. It’s that they were already aware of a troubling rise in anti-Asian violence in our country, and this incident fit the pattern all too perfectly. It had to be more of the same.
Except it wasn’t.
Progressive reporters might demur. Even if it’s unclear that this particular crime was motivated by racism, a whole lot are. Even if we can't determine what motivated Long to murder his victims, it IS true that there has been a spike in violence against Asian-Americans over the last year, and there’s nothing wrong with using the Atlanta crisis as a news-peg to inform people about the rising wave of unjustified, racist violence.
But there IS something wrong with reporting in this way. Consider a parallel case: suppose a journalist writes a story about a woman in Omaha who died from a blood clot. She reports that the blood clot was caused by an AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
When it turns out that the blood clot was NOT caused by the vaccine, it’s no defense for the journalist to say “Well, it IS true that there have been a rise in blood clot cases associated with AstraZeneca vaccines, so there’s nothing wrong with using this particular story as a news-peg to inform people about that larger issue.”
That's crazy. The facts matter, and if reporters are just making up the facts about particular cases in order to inform their audiences about wider issues, that's part of the fake news problem.
Note that this same confirmation bias plays out on conservative side of the news ecosystem, too. For example, it was obvious to most everyone that Trump supporters attacked the Capitol earlier this year. But that didn’t stop the conservative-leaning Washington Times from running a story suggesting that antifa agents were involved in the riots (it was later retracted). As with any complex issue, the evidence is ambiguous, and dogged journalists can find what they’re looking for.
Confirmation bias at the personal level is bad enough. That problem is amplified when those producing the news share a common ideology. If you thought that the Atlanta shooting was obviously racist, and this is confirmed by all of your coworkers, your confidence in your assessment grows. But if all of your coworkers share your ideological sympathies, then they likely share your confirmation biases, too.
This is yet another lesson in why objective reporting requires viewpoint diversity in the newsroom. But that's a story for another post.
For now, the lesson for those of us following the news is clear: don’t restrict your news attention to just one segment of the news market. If you watch MSNBC, watch Fox News, too. (Or better, watch neither.) If you read the New York Times, read the Wall Street Journal, too. If you listen to Revolutionary Left Radio, save some time for Conservative Minds. Since reporters have a tendency to find what they’re looking for, seeing the world through the eyes of very different people increases your odds of landing on the truth.