Sandy Goldberg: Do we make bad assumptions about the news coverage we see?
Recently I was struck by a conversation I had with a progressive friend. When I noted the significant decrease in extreme world poverty over the past two decades — a remarkable achievement that has attracted relatively little news coverage — he responded by confidently denying that this was so. His reasoning was instructive: If this were true, he said, he would have heard about it by now.
Reasoning from an absence of news is a familiar, and often justified, phenomenon. If you are worried that your favorite sports team is thinking of trading its star player, it would be reasonable to regard the absence of news as indicating that the player has not yet been traded.
But as my friend’s case makes clear, this sort of reasoning can also lead us badly astray. Suppose that your preferred news sources do not regularly report on a given topic. If you assume that they do offer coverage on that topic, you risk making the sort of mistake my friend made.
There are many examples of this sort of situation. Early in the pandemic, for example, those who assumed that their newspapers were keeping them fully informed of the known health risks of COVID-19 were mistaken. Faulty expectations of news coverage in the United Kingdom were implicated in people’s mistaken impression of the prevalence of sexual harassment on college campuses. And matters are particularly acute for local news: Many of us continue to assume a degree of coverage that does not reflect the dramatic decrease in the number of local news outlets.
Thus arises a subtle but pervasive problem in the way we consume news. Unlike the more familiar, but still very important, problem of “fake news,” which requires us to distinguish true reports from false ones, the problem here concerns our response to an absence of news. How we respond to such absences can be as important as how we respond to news reports themselves.
Our problem, then, is to determine when it is proper to interpret the absence of news as indicating that there is nothing newsworthy to report. When is it proper, in other words, to endorse the “no news shortcut”?
Cases in which this shortcut is proper are easy to come by. If I haven’t heard that the Eiffel Tower has collapsed, it probably hasn’t.
But not all important information is as memorable, as simple to convey or as certain to be widely reported as the news of the collapse of the Eiffel Tower. The state of campus politics, the incidence of white supremacist rhetoric in police departments, the conditions in your local prison — such matters might not be reported by the news outlets you favor.
To rely on the “no news shortcut” in these cases is to persist in whatever beliefs you happen to have about the state of campus politics or the conditions in your local prison. This is a problem when your beliefs are false or outdated.
Unfortunately, features of human psychology exacerbate the problem.
One feature is the well-confirmed availability heuristic, in which how easily something comes to mind is treated as indicating how likely it is to be true or common. In cases in which we’ve heard nothing to the contrary, the availability heuristic may explain why we are inclined to believe the first thing that pops into our heads. Perhaps this explains my progressive friend’s response to my report: When he thinks of global poverty, he immediately thinks that matters are getting worse, and nothing I say can dislodge that thought.
Another feature is what political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla call the “partisan coverage filtering” bias, which arises when one’s preferred source of news is selective in its coverage. In research not yet published, Broockman and Kalla provide initial evidence for the manner in which this bias reinforces one’s deeply held political beliefs. Consider a devotee of Fox News: He may dismiss reliable reports regarding climate change on the grounds that he hasn’t encountered such reports on Fox. Or consider my progressive friend. Although he is a well-educated and news-savvy person, he is making the same type of mistake: His misguided expectations of news coverage led him to dismiss what I told him.
So when can we safely employ the “no news shortcut”?
While there is no hard and fast rule, simply being aware of the problem can help.
In addition, we need to be aware of the broad range of assumptions we make when we employ this shortcut. We are assuming that the relevant facts are readily observable, that reporters are competent and would succeed in publishing their findings, and that we would come across any relevant reports in the course of our daily routine. When these assumptions are true, following the “no news shortcut” is relatively safe; when they are false, it is risky.
In the age of social media, it is tempting to suppose that we are constantly being kept informed of all that is newsworthy. But this is an illusion, and a dangerous one at that: Our faulty expectations of coverage can lead us to feel highly confident in matters on which we are badly mistaken.
Sandy Goldberg is a Chester D. Tripp Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, and a professorial fellow at the University of St. Andrews.
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