By Judith E. Rosenbaum and Jennifer Bonnet
In an era when everyone seems eager to point out instances of “fake news,” it is easy to forget that knowing how we make sense of the news is as important as knowing how to spot incorrect or biased content. While the ability to analyze the credibility of a source and the veracity of its content remains an essential and often-discussed aspect of news literacy, it is equally important to understand how we as news consumers engage with and react to the information we find online, in our feeds, and on our apps. Why? Because our own personal biases impact how we process, make sense of, and evaluate the news.
People process information they receive from the news in the same way they process all information around them — in the shortest, quickest way possible. Throughout our lives, we develop countless shortcuts to help us make sense of the vast amount of information coming at us. These shortcuts, also called heuristics, streamline our problem-solving process and help us make relatively quick decisions. In that sense, they are not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, without these heuristics, it would be impossible for us to process all the information we receive daily. However, the use of these shortcuts can lead to “blind spots,” or unintentional ways we respond to information that can have negative consequences for how we engage with, digest, and share the information we encounter.
When we consider how we engage with the news, some shortcuts we may want to pay close attention to, and reflect carefully on, are cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are best described as glitches in how we process information. Operating under a cognitive bias means that we don’t make sense of information in a rational manner, and as a result, fail to accurately perceive, process, or remember information. There are a large number of cognitive biases, but the following are especially relevant when it comes to news consumption:
- Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and value information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs while discarding information that proves our ideas wrong.
- Echo chamber effect refers to a situation in which we are primarily exposed to information, people, events, and ideas that already align with our point of view. This helps to bolster opinions we already have and may lead to change avoidance.
- Anchoring bias, also known as “anchoring,” refers to people’s tendency to consider the first piece of information they receive about a topic as the most reliable. When connected to the notion that most social media users operate in an echo chamber, one can see how people who rely on their social media networks for news are more likely to see their views about a specific issue reinforced rather than challenged.
- The framing effect is what happens when we make decisions based on how information is presented or discussed, rather than its actual substance. This can lead to decision-making based on semantic perceptions rather than content-based arguments, even if the information shared in each approach is the same.
- Fluency heuristic occurs when a piece of information is deemed more valuable because it is easier to process or recall. When a politician uses a catchy soundbite to convey an idea, as opposed to a lengthy speech, this particular cognitive bias holds that people will think the soundbite is more worthwhile than the speech because it is more accessible.
Everyone operates under one or more cognitive biases. So, when searching for and reading the news (or other information), it is important to be aware of how these biases might shape how we make sense of this information. The best way to create this awareness is by asking ourselves a series of reflective questions each time we read, hear, or see a news story.
For instance, take a look at this story that is told from three different news sources. Next, consider the following questions:
- What might confirmation bias look like when reading the headlines alone? Look at an article that resonated with you: How might you address confirmation bias in that article?
- How do you see the framing effect at play? How might the framing effect influence how a reader approaches the topic of gun control?
- Did you find yourself attracted to one of the points of view because it was better packaged? Which cognitive bias does this represent?
In conclusion, we may not be able to control the content of the news — whether it is fake, reliable, or somewhere in between — but we can learn to be aware of how we respond to it and adjust our evaluations of the news accordingly.
- Videos explaining confirmation bias
- QUIZ: “How Good Are You At Detecting Bias?” (with Lesson Plan)
- Cognitive bias cheat sheet
- The echo chamber effect
- On heuristics
- The dangers of fluency
About the authors
Judith E. Rosenbaum (Ph.D., Radboud University Nijmegen) is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine. Her doctoral dissertation focused on news literacy, and her research focuses on how people interact with the media and what factors drive this interaction. She is especially interested in how people’s digital media use can become a tool to engender individual and social change. She has taught multiple workshops on “fake news” and misinformation with Jen Bonnet and has published in a variety of outlets, including Journal of Media Psychology, Social Media + Society, Communication Yearbook, Communication Research, and Media Psychology, and recently published her first book, Constructing digital cultures: Tweets, trends, race, and gender.
Jennifer Bonnet (M.A., University of Maryland, MSI, University of Michigan) is a social sciences and humanities librarian at the University of Maine’s Fogler Library, where she engages in a wide range of outreach, instruction, consultation, and research. She has taught multiple workshops on “fake news” and misinformation and teaches a credit-bearing course on information literacy. She has published in a variety of venues, including Basic Communication Course Annual, Journal of Academic Librarianship, and Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication.