The Chronicle yesterday published the news that Rush Limbaugh had passed using the word “bombastic” to describe him. This was understandably not well received in the comments, and it appears the post has been removed. Everyone makes mistakes, but this is not the first time something like this has happened. Repeated behavior points to a pattern, and though this behavior is problematic, it is easily explained and should be met with understanding instead of anger.
After a tragic accident in which Sheriff Mike Prendergast struck a man trying to cross a major highway on a dark night, the Chronicle had to rewrite their headline online after social media pushback on their word choice. Let me defend the Chronicle here for a moment. In neither the Sheriff case over a year ago nor the Limbaugh instance yesterday do I think the intent of the wording was to be malicious. Intent does matter so that should be established and should not be forgotten.
However, I do think it exposes a pattern of a publication unable to recognize its own biases against people its staffers don’t like. This is nothing new to media nor is it anything new to humanity. It is simply a blindspot.
This shouldn’t be met with anger but rather with understanding. Blindspots can be fixed with what is called disconfirmation bias. The root of that phrase, confirmation bias (without the “dis”), is the action in which someone searches for evidence to back what they already believe to be true. If you think you get a headache every time it is cloudy, then you will be more likely to remember all the times you got a headache around 3 p.m. in the Florida spring time and less likely to remember all the times you were clear headed during a rainstorm or had headaches in the sunshine.
Along these same lines, disconfirmation bias is the ability for someone to point out what is counter to a group’s beliefs and allow everyone to see other possibilities.
I work in academia, and while I am fortunate to have an amazing program at the university where I teach that not just embraces but welcomes the fact that I work in Republican politics, academia as a whole is an industry like media in which disconfirmation bias is needed. Social scientists love to assign metrics to behaviors and disconfirmation bias can be measured.
A ratio of roughly 3:1 or 4:1 is needed for disconfirmation bias to occur, meaning you need at minimum one person with an opposing view for every four people with the same view in order for all five people to seriously consider each other’s viewpoints. Anything larger and the one person with the opposing view gets drowned out at best and discredited at worst. Either way, it creates a blindspot for the group.
The pattern of headlines that need to either be re-written or removed about conservative figures both locally and nationally suggests that the Chronicle’s editorial staff has a disconfirmation bias that exceeds 4:1. If it had the proper ratio, someone in the room would have suggested that the Sheriff’s headline should have focused on the fact that it was an accident instead of a fatality and that Limbaugh’s legacy is that he engaged millions of Americans in civic affairs, not the style in which he approached it. What the Chronicle reported in both instances wasn’t wrong, that’s not what is being debated here, but I am asserting that it was unable to see what the real story should be because of its own biased blindspots.
This doesn’t anger me. I think there are many news outlets that would write headlines in this way to intentionally harm the subjects of the headlines, or worse, mislead the public and that is not what I think happened in the case of the Chronicle. However, recognizing these shortcomings in perspective is what makes the need for other voices in the community, specifically on the subject of public affairs, so vital to complete our civic conversation.