Confirmation bias

“All the same we’ll shout and cry, / Stretching all our throats ... / Shouting, crying, all day long, / Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax. ... / This you shall not beat us in.”
  — The Frogs, Aristophanes (405 B.C.)

Rolling Stone was counterculturally cool when I was in college on the East Coast, back when the ’60s were in flower. It reflected our revolutionary perspective in every line of copy.

In all of its reporting, Rolling Stone drooled leftist fervor.

Rolling Stone took one straight to the kisser recently after a major story it published late last year — claiming a horrific frat house party gang rape and an administrative coverup at the University of Virginia — unraveled. The crime, and subsequent cover-up, never took place as charged in the story. A Columbia Journalism Review investigation showed an epic breakdown in basic Journalism 101 practices, everything from routine fact-checking to interviewing sources.

The heart of the problem at Rolling Stone seemed to be what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” In journalism, confirmation bias means going into a story with a preconceived notion and prejudices that will color everything from the fact-gathering through the interviews and writing. The reporter turns a blind eye to mostly anything that would not fit into the preconceived confirmation bias of how the story should turn out.

The worst thing about this kind of confirmation bias in journalists is that it is often unrecognized. Instead, it is seen as the “right” or “normative” way to think about an issue and view a story. Seeing the story from a different perspective is perceived as either misinformed or flat-out wrong. Confirmation bias defines today’s mainstream journalistic culture. It’s in the very air a reporter breathes, whether at Rolling Stone or The New York Times.

A classic example of the pack mentality of confirmation bias took place with the reporting on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which reflected the same federal bill passed years ago. The act was intended to protect individuals from laws that could substantially burden freedom of religion without a compelling government interest. One way or another, at least 30 states have similar protections.

But without any need to show exactly how, opponents of the law claimed it was a thinly veiled attempt to widely, openly and legally discriminate against gays. And media lobbied in with ham-handed confirmation bias of that charge that included everything from reporting as fact the most absurd gay fantasies on the impact of the law, to reporters giving idiotic lectures on New Testament moral theology to bewildered mom-and-pop store owners in Indiana.

Religious freedom has been reduced to a second-class right. As Mitchell Gold, a gay philanthropist, told gay advocate Frank Bruni of The New York Times, “Church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’”

The firestorm over Indiana’s RFRA is only the latest example of confirmation bias when it comes to reporting on same-sex marriage. It is reporting that now demands not just approval but active involvement of people of faith no matter their religious beliefs.

In Aristophanes’ ancient satirical play, “The Frogs,” a chorus of frogs burps out loudly and persistently whatever nonsense it advocates. Shouting and crying all day long because “This you shall not beat us in.”

It is what media has reduced itself to when it comes to the issue of religious freedom — frogs croaking back with every fiber of its confirmation bias whatever it has been fed by professional gay advocates.

Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.