BOB GARFIELD: Last week, we devoted most of the program to the media coverage of the conflict in the Middle East, and, as usually happens, especially with this story, we received a number of letters charging us, and pretty much all media, with bias. The fact is, they're all probably right. Intentionally or not, journalists use inflected language, exclude historical context and view events through the prisms of their own experience, incensing those with other world views.
Indeed, a story in The Washington Post this week revisits research concluding that people with deep convictions tend to be the ones who write letters and are more likely to perceive bias. Viewing the same piece, the best-informed partisans coming from opposite sides will see bias against them and worry about the impact of bias on the less informed.
Shankar Vedantam wrote the piece for The Washington Post, and he joins us now from Cambridge, England. Shankar, welcome to the show.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Bob. Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So who did this study, and what was the methodology?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Well, the study actually goes back a way. It was conducted after Israel's last invasion of Lebanon in 1982 by psychologists at Stanford University. It was a very unusual and interesting methodology. It just showed six television clips of the conflict to 144 observers, some of whom were pro-Israeli and some of whom were pro-Arab and some of whom were neutral.
And pro-Israelis found that the clips had an astonishing number of anti-Israel references and the pro-Arabs found the very same clips had a huge number of anti-Arab references, so partisans were able to look at the exact same clips and draw diametrically opposing conclusions about them.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you might think that being steeped into a subject would lend itself to nuance of understanding and sympathy for other people's views, but -
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - it's actually the opposite.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Yeah. This is pretty troubling, because what the researchers assumed when they started the study was that the more informed people were about the conflict, both pro-Israeli and pro-Arab, the less likely they would have these stark differences in perception.
As it turned out, it was exactly the opposite. The more informed people were, the more likely their assessments of the television news clips were diametrically opposing. And the interesting thing is that what's animating this difference in perception is the fear among both pro-Israelis and pro-Arabs that neutrals will gravitate to the other side. And the data shows that in this, they're actually misguided.
BOB GARFIELD: What does the study show about neutrals and how they process attempts at objective journalism?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Well, neutrals seem to process journalism very differently than partisans. I suppose in general, neutrals are first more likely to be uninterested in the issue, so they may not be paying attention at all. But when they do pay attention, they're far more able to pick up the strengths and weaknesses of both sides' positions.
And so the fear that partisans have that neutrals will, in effect, defect to the other side is fundamentally unfounded, but the anxiety and the fear about that is extremely real. And the psychologists believe it is that fear which essentially leads to this war of perceptions.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you seem to be describing a form of condescension. I mean, because they understand the history, the context, the arguments so acutely -
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Mm-hmm. [IN AGREEMENT]
BOB GARFIELD: - they fear for how biased reporting misleads the poor everybody else.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Right. I mean, so what happens is when journalists cover daily news events, what they do is they write about, you know, whatever happened the previous day. And what partisans want is they want far more than just what happened the previous day. They want all of the context, and usually the context that they want is somewhat selective, but they want the context that essentially justifies whatever happened the previous day from their point of view.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's think of an example of how attempts by the media to be even-handed are futile.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Since the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, almost every lead of every story includes the number of casualties, which are tenfold as numerous in Lebanon as they are in Israel.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the statistic is usually cited without further comment.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: But if you believe that, for example, that Israel has the right to defend itself from rocket attacks, and you believe that that requires the dismantling of Hezbollah -
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - and if you believe that Hezbollah shields itself in civilian populations, a simple body count like that sounds like anti-Israeli propaganda.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: That's exactly right.
BOB GARFIELD: And if you believe that Israeli is oppressive and disproportionately brutal, the word "incursion" itself looks like a euphemism for "invasion."
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: That's exactly -
BOB GARFIELD: How is any reporter supposed to negotiate that minefield?
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: So long as reporters are trying to describe both sides, it is inevitable that they're going to run into conflict with both sides. And one of the ironic things when these conflicts break out is pretty much the only thing that partisans on both sides will agree on is that the media is biased against them.
BOB GARFIELD: So even if every story on the Mideast were accompanied by historical context in eight volumes, the partisans would never be mollified.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: I think so, because I think context for an Israeli is something different than context for an Arab, precisely in the way that you just laid out. So the reasons people come to particular points of view is that they are aware of, you know, the historical context and they are aware of all of the things that might have led up to that particular moment in the conflict. The person on the other side has a whole litany of events that lead up to their own perception of whatever happened yesterday.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Shankar. Well, thank you very much.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Thanks so much for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Shankar Vedantam is a staff science writer for The Washington Post.