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Monday, August 10, 2009
Ethics Toolbox

Thinking about how we think

By Sue Ellen Christian

We all likely committed some version of this cognitive error while driving: We bawled out “What a stupid idiot!” to some driver who swerved into the wrong lane. It’s instinctive. We assume that the person behind that car’s wheel has to have an IQ of zero and no coordination. Duh.

And then we see the lost puppy meandering down the middle of that lane.

Once again, we’ve done it. We’ve committed the fundamental attribution error. Never knew it was within you, did you?

Turns out this pervasive theory is at work in our daily thinking. It’s a form of — dare we say it — bias. And it can have an impact on our reporting as well.

The SPJ Code of Ethics states that journalists should “Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.”

It continues: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”

Many disciplines have studied how our thinking affects our doing. It’s illuminating, I think, to apply the work of social psychologists in particular to the practice of journalism.

The fundamental attribution theory, greatly simplified, says that we tend to “blame” someone’s behavior on internal factors (their disposition, their personality) rather than external factors (their circumstances, the unique situation). This theory is among a handful of cognitive biases that affect our thinking whether we realize it or not.

A journalistic example: Think about the low-income single parent who is charged with child neglect. Is the neglect due to the parent’s poor nurturing skills and low intelligence, or to the pressures of working full-time, depending on mass transportation and having no support system as backup? Is the behavior of neglect due to her deficiencies or a reaction to tough circumstances? Or both?

Other cognitive biases are at work in us, including:

• Implicit and explicit associations (conscious and unconscious assumptions about people).

• Schemas (mental frameworks that help organize the world but that can also cause us to exclude pertinent information in favor of information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and ideas).

• Aversive racism (a complex, ambivalent form of racism, particularly among white people who endorse egalitarian values but have unacknowledged negative attitudes toward a group).

I suspect most journalists haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about their own cultural values. It’s not part of our training or the “m.o.” of journalists. A bit too touchy-feely for most. Let’s not overthink things. But those values that oftentimes come from deep in our personal histories, from our backgrounds, the culture we were steeped in as children, the norms that we grew up with — those values likely influence our thinking today.

And our cultural norms can influence our journalism. They influence the way we see the world. The questions we ask of sources. The sources we seek out because we are comfortable with them. The angles we take on enterprise stories because we can’t see any other angles. The automatic thinking involved in stereotyping means we always need to take a second look; what we anticipate and what is are often very different.

We need to think about how we think.

The SPJ code doesn’t tell us how to avoid stereotypes. But social psychologists tell us that awareness is part of the answer. Studies indicate that with a concerted, continuous effort, we can control our thinking and our cognitive habits. Fortunately for us, the how is rooted in our craft:

Accuracy: “How do I know that?” we have to ask of our assumptions.

Thorough reporting: What perspective am I missing? If we do a 360 around the issues, it will help ensure our blinders aren’t keeping us from missing important points of view.

Careful attention to word choice: This goes for writing and interviewing. Are my words neutral? Could they be heard in a different way than I intend? Are they loaded with history I might not readily think about?

Relevance: How is this story relevant to news consumers? Or is it just relevant to consumers who are like me?

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