Confirmation Bias

My friend Patrick, over on his outstanding blog, has been talking about alleged media bias. It’s a fascinating topic to me. There are two concepts I’d like to talk about that I think are germane to the debate over media bias and are far too long to cover in a comment. They are : Facts and Opinions and Confirmation Bias.

What is Confirmation Bias?

In their book Democracy Despite Itself, authors Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards describe confirmation bias as the the tendency of people of interpret news as confirming what they already believed before. Thus the same piece of news can be interpreted by different sides as supporting their argument.

Let me give an example: The President and his challenger hold a debate. Viewers see the debate as confirming their preexisting bias toward one candidate or the other. Their candidate ‘won’ (whatever that means in a Presidential debate). Could both men have done the best job? Unlikely. One probably did a better job in the debate, but which one that was is heavily influenced by the viewers bias.

Here’s an example from the discussion on Patrick’s blog: an edited version of the George Zimmerman 911 call aired. In the edited version, two clips were cut together and the result was that it appeared Zimmerman was volunteering that Trayvon Martin, the man he is accused of killing, was black before the 911 dispatcher asked for a physical description.

Someone who believes the media is biased will take this news and interpret it to confirm their bias that the media is playing fast and loose with the facts to support a particular line of thinking, a media narrative if you will.

Someone who believes the media is not biased will take this news and interpret it to confirm their bias. They will see a clip edited for time to fit into a segment.

The facts don’t change, only the preexisting bias of the news consumer.

One more: The government reports lower unemployment numbers.

Someone who supports the incumbent will interpret this as supporting their bias towards the President. They will see him doing a fantastic job, and point to the ‘fact’ that people are getting jobs again.

Someone who doesn’t support the current president will see this as support their bias that the president is not doing a good job. They point out the ‘fact’ that many people have just given up and are no longer reported in the number.


All of us, even the writer of this blog are guilty, of allowing confirmation bias to affect our thinking. The Internet seems to only exacerbate the problem because we choose to tune into only those pages, and blogs that confirm our preexisting biases. The best we can possibly do, and what I attempt to do is seek out multiple people with varying viewpoints and try to understand why they believe the way they do. This isn’t done with the goal of changing their mind, but instead with a goal of learning more about the issues from all sides.


Thanks for the plug, Ted. Great post...for those of us who work in the media, it's frustrating that anything we report is subject to this same we're automatically biased depending on facts we report and how they're interpreted.

That is not at all to say that legitimate bias in the media DOESN'T exist. It certainly does. But it doesn't exist at the great depths the "watchdog" types would have everyone believe, and there's a good deal of what's reported honestly and with the best of intentions that just gets looped into the same tired old complaints of bias.

You're right that listening to people of varying viewpoints is critical to get a true sense of where reality actually is. It's almost always more in the middle of an argument than on either extreme.