Home > Cognitive Bias, Decision Making > The Rise of Opinionated News Sources: How Confirmation Bias is Affecting How We Vote

The Rise of Opinionated News Sources: How Confirmation Bias is Affecting How We Vote

As Donald Trump’s four year term is coming to a close, people all over the United States–and the world– were more anxious than ever to see who would win the election. Would Trump be rewarded with a second term, or would former Vice-President Joe Biden get enough votes to make Trump the first one-term President since Clinton beat Bush in 1992? Regardless of the fact that Biden won, one thing is clear: our country seems to be more politically divided than ever before. The rise of biased news sources combined with the power of confirmation bias have contributed to much of our current, incredibly-divided, political climate.

Walter Cronkite, a retired CBS news anchor who was widely trusted by Middle America.

Before cable and internet news, the three television networks in the United States were ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they had to appeal to very broad and diverse audiences, these networks relayed the news of the day fairly objectively, and it was challenging to decipher whether news anchors, such as Walter Cronkite, were liberal or conservative based on their reporting (Poniewozik). Over the last 30 years, with the rise of cable and internet news, news sources have become increasingly more biased and focused on niche audiences. These networks are supplying the public with opinionated accounts of what’s going on instead of seeking to simply report objective facts (Pearson). Those who follow the news know that many networks and sites like CNN, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and MSNBC are left-leaning news sources, and thus share the news from a more liberal point of view. The opposite is true for networks like Fox News, Breitbart and the National Review, which are right leaning and promote more conservative opinions, as expressed through the data found by AllSides–a Media Bias chart that collects information from people across the political spectrum through blind bias surveys, editorial reviews, independent reviews, and third party data.

AllSides Media Bias Chart, which categorizes news sources based on how right or left leaning their    reporting is.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports our own beliefs and reject the information that contradicts these beliefs. Many of us fall victim to this bias regarding our opinions on all sorts of subjects. For example, the first time you meet someone, you may get the sense that they are very rude. The next time you see them, if they act politely for the most part, but act rudely just for a moment, that moment of rude behavior, even in the context of general politeness, will reinforce and confirm your opinion. Even if you later witness them do something kind, you may ignore it or write it off as a one time thing. This bias can be problematic, especially in this age of subjective news reporting, because people often automatically discredit or ignore information that contradicts their initial opinion. And not only do we focus on information we agree with, we also tend to remember that information better than the information we disagree with. This is because information we agree with fits our own world view; our willingness to accept and remember knowledge as fact relies heavily on whether or not it will allow us to continue to accept what we already know to be true (Bardon). This makes it incredibly hard to believe or even consider information that contradicts our own moral, religious and political beliefs.

Those who watch one news source won’t trust the news from a source that has different opinions. The Pew Research Center found that 70% of self-described liberal Democrats and 16% of conservative republicans trust CNN– a 54% gap between parties. However, 75% of conservative republicans and only 12% of liberal democrats trust Fox News –a gap of 63 percentage points (Gramlich). It seems that there is a very small percentage of people who trust both sources, suggesting that the majority of people who are politically opposed are receiving different accounts of the same events. 

News sources portray the news subjectively in order to convince their audience to  think a certain way.

So how are bias news sources affecting the way we vote? Being exposed to subjective news networks without being aware of their subjectivity and without seeking out objective networks or networks with opposing beliefs can cause people to begin registering their opinion as widely-accepted fact (Ling). Politicians’ policies are introduced and discussed as correct or incorrect, rather than the viewer forming their own opinion through a non-biased description of said policies. Or, cable news networks will pick and choose which policies or parts of policies they want to share in order to promote their own beliefs. If a particular television channel or website displays a news network that contradicts what we believe, we can easily find and switch to a different news source that echoes our beliefs, making it incredibly easy to ignore what we do not want to hear. Confirmation bias also contributes to misinformation, or “fake news.” The more we are exposed to information, the more accessible it becomes. Our ability to quickly bring this information to mind can lead us to incorporate that information into our knowledge base and falsely recall it as truthful. Even if this new information contradicts our prior knowledge and forces us to neglect our semantic memory, we may still accept it is accurate, as long as it seems somewhat possible. What makes this problematic is that people not only believe but also spread the information they think is true, even before seeing evidence to support it (Pearson).

CNN headlines such as this one work to convince their audience to think negatively of President Trump.

In the most recent election, The Trump administration and other right-leaning, Trump supporting news outlets emphasized over and over that if Biden were to become president, everyone’s taxes would increase. If Fox News supporters hear information that contradicts this, such as the fact that Biden is only planning on increasing taxes on those who make over $400,000 a year, they may automatically consider it inaccurate because it opposes the information given to them by their trusted news source. Thus, voters who listen to Fox News may choose to vote against Biden for fear of increased taxes, even though they may have a salary that would exempt them from the tax increase. The same scenarios happen with CNN; they only highlight Trump’s failures and mistakes in order to display him as a less capable individual than he may seem if his accomplishments were portrayed as well.

With confirmation bias playing such a strong role in modern politics and political opinion, it’s easy to understand why it’s so challenging to have meaningful and respectful conversations with those who have opposite opinions. If we are able to be more aware of the bias expressed through these incredibly popular news networks, we may be more inclined to research and more carefully consider our own opinions, rather than simply believing what is being told to us.

 

References

AllSides Media Bias Chart. (2020, September 23). Retrieved November 24, 2020, from https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart

Bardon, A. (january 31, 2020). Humans are Hardwired to Dismiss Facts that Don’t Fit Their Worldview. The Conversation. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/humans-are-hardwired-to-dismiss-facts-that-dont-fit-their-worldview-127168

Fazio, L. (march 29, 2018). Why You Stink at Factchecking. The Conversation. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/why-you-stink-at-fact-checking-93997

Gramlich, J. (2020, August 18). Q&A: How Pew Research Center Evaluated Americans’ Trust in 30 News Sources. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/24/qa-how-pew-research-center-evaluated-americans-trust-in-30-news-sources/. 

Ling, R. (2020). Confirmation Bias in the Era of Mobile News Consumption: The Social and Psychological Dimensions. Digital Journalism, 8(5), 596-604. doi:10.1080/21670811.2020.1766987

Pearson, G. D., & Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2019). Is the Confirmation Bias Bubble Larger Online? Pre-Election Confirmation Bias in Selective Exposure to Online versus Print Political Information. Mass Communication and Society, 22(4), 466-486. doi:10.1080/15205436.2019.1599956

Poniewozik, J. (2009, July 17). Walter Cronkite: The Man with America’s Trust. Retrieved November 24, 2020, from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1911501,00.html

Tandoc, E. C. (2019). The Facts of Fake News: A Research Review. Sociology Compass, 13(9). doi:10.1111/soc4.12724

 

Photos

http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1911501,00.html

https://imgflip.com/i/24qpm3

https://www.cnn.com/videos/business/2019/06/23/why-are-headlines-still-taking-trump-at-his-word.cnn

http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/files/2020/11/image-1.jpeg

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