Understand and get your hands around bias — For media critics (including those within the media), the term “bias” tends to be used primarily as an accusation against specific media sources that slant the news, usually in favor of one political party or the other. While this is one accurate use of the word “bias,” we need to understand biases of individuals and institutions much more deeply if we want to be effective producers and consumers of news.
As a part of our series about “the 5 steps we can take to win back trust in journalism” I had the distinct pleasure of interviewingJonathan Haber.
Jonathan Haber has worked as a journalist in the US, the UK and Turkey, as well as an entrepreneur and executive in the fields of education and employment. His Degree of Freedom One Year BA project, which involved taking 32 free online courses — the equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree — in just twelve months, was featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Ideas section of the Boston Globe and other major publications. His current work is focused on expanding the critical-thinking ability of teachers and students, as well as producers and consumers of news. This includes his latest book Critical Thinking, part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, Critical Voter, his how-to guide for using election politics to learn practical critical-thinking skills, and LogicCheck, a resource modeled after fact-checking sites that checks the reasoning behind the news.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/9cd32a8e1f6761947ea6b9b20cda73c2
Thank you so much for joining us. Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you share with us the “backstory” about how you got started in your career?
After graduating from college in the 1980s with a degree in chemistry, I decided to move abroad and try to make it as a freelance journalist. While I hadn’t been trained in journalism, I was able to use my science background to land pieces in new science and technology sections that newspapers were starting at the time, as well as work for emerging computer and technology periodicals.
Like many freelancers, I needed additional work to make ends meet and so I leveraged my 80- words-per-minute typing speed and a willingness to work anywhere to earn money as a temp (they still called us Kelly Girls in Great Britain at the time). Through that experience, I learned enough about the employment industry to found a company called SkillCheck, Inc. that sold books, assessment software and Internet services to the biggest temporary staffing firms in the world (including my old employer Kelly!).
SkillCheck also worked in education, a field I dedicated myself to after selling the company, working for one of the big educational publishers, helping get a new graduate school of education open and accredited in Massachusetts, and developing my own projects related to online learning and critical thinking.
The project that got the most ink was my Degree of Freedom One Year BA which took place in 2013 when Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) — free online courses from the world’s most well-known universities — were in the news due to their huge enrollments. I decided to test them out by taking the equivalent of an undergraduate degree worth of courses (32 of them) in just twelve months, communicating about the experience in a blog, interviewing MOOC leaders in a podcast, as well as writing articles for educational publications and publishing my first book with MIT Press. That project also led to a fellowship at HarvardX, Harvard’s MOOC organization, during which I helped the HarvardX team improve their assessment content, as well as explore different business models.
My second book for MIT Press, called Critical Thinking — which came out earlier this year — supports my ongoing mission to bring critical-thinking skills to everyone through education and advocacy. Having worked as a journalist, and having applied the research and writing skills learned through journalism (not to mention fast typing!) at every step in my career, I feel a particular devotion to helping the profession navigate its current crisis through application of the critical-thinker’s toolkit.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
The book that has had the biggest impact on my work over the last decade was a gift from my father (who had an uncanny knack for giving me the right book the right time): Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.
Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for work he began in the 1960s with fellow Israeli academic Amos Tversky in the area of human cognition.
Traditionally, humans were considered to be rational, and when we behaved irrationally, that was chalked up to our emotion or animal instinct overwhelming reason. But Kahneman and Tversky’s work — documented in Thinking Fast and Slow — demonstrated that human reasoning itself is flawed, that it is subject to a number of biases that interfere with rational thinking, biases that might have been hard-wired into our brains during the process of human evolution.
These are the biases that make us suspectable to manipulation by advertisers, demagogues or social media platforms that understand and play to our weaknesses. Reading Thinking Fast and Slow helped me realize that one of the prime missions of critical thinking is to help us recognize and control for our biases in order to better understand the world and make informed, rational decisions.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
My most memorable moment in journalism came after I ended up in Istanbul, having Inter-Railed and hitchhiked through Europe. While staying at a hostel in the center of the city, I discovered an English-language newspaper called Dateline Turkey that was published for the city’s large expat community.
Since this was the 1980s, no one had cell phones and even landlines were sketchy in that part of the world back then, so I decided to just show up at Dateline Turkey’s office and ask for freelance work. The editor said she would give me a try if I was free to cover an arms expo taking place in some distant part of the city the next day. My answer was an enthusiastic yes, and I spent the next 24 hours finding clean, non-hitch-hiker clothes to wear, and imagining how to navigate a hall full of medal-encrusted generals and shadowy spies negotiating weapons deals on the show floor.
Needless to say, reality did not match my fantasies. Vendors at the event primarily sold trucks, gas tanks, and other infrastructure supplies to suit-and-tie wearing bureaucrats, with no dictators or secret agents in sight. The distance between what we imagine the arms business to be like and its more pragmatic reality became part of the story — one of several I wrote for Dateline Turkey during a stay in Istanbul that stretched to almost six months.
Can you share the most humorous mistake that you made when you first started? Can you share the lesson or take away you learned from it?
I made all the standard rookie mistakes when I started out in journalism: pitching a story to a publication without knowing its mission (and being appropriately scolded by the editor), not knowing I was supposed to keep my identity secret when I did my first restaurant review, all of that.
While it wasn’t humorous at the time, the error I learned the most from my business career came when we started SkillCheck (it was a family company) by writing, publishing and printing 10,000 copies of our first book before having a single conversation with anyone who represented the customers we planned to sell it to.
It was the classic “if you build it, they will come” error made by so many entrepreneurs, even if today’s software company founders don’t have to deal with thousands of unsold copies of a book in their parents’ living room. Through that experience, I learned the importance of letting customer needs and pain points drive product and company development (not the other way around).
I also learned that just because you’re good at some things (like writing, desktop publishing and figuring out how to print thousands of copies of a book) that doesn’t mean you know how to run a business and sell to customers — a different set of skills you either need to develop or hire for.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The project I’m most jazzed about is LogicCheck, a web site I created when election season started last year that is modeled on well-known fact-checking sites like Politifact and FactCheck.org, with LogicCheck analyzing not just the facts but the reasoning behind the news.
Several years ago, a philosopher I admired called Gary Gutting (who sadly passed away recently) pointed out a central problem with fact checking: that facts serve as the premises for arguments, but to understand what’s going on you need to understand the logic linking those facts/premises to the conclusion an argument is asking you to accept (whether in a news story, editorial, campaign speech, or advertisement).
I wrote about this problem in my first critical-thinking book called Critical Voter, a how-to guide that uses election politics to teach critical thinking skills (which I recently updated for the 2020 election). But LogicCheck applies the full suite of critical-thinking tools: logic, argumentation, persuasive communication, controlling for biases, and so forth to the news of the day, revealing things that fact-checking alone never can.
I’m also excited about a set of high-leverage critical-thinking teaching practices that build on recommendations made in my recent critical-thinking book for MIT so that educators interested in turning critical-thinking instruction from aspiration to reality will have a place to start.
What advice would you give to your colleagues in the industry, to thrive and not “burnout”?
While I still write for the educational press, it’s been a while since I made my living in journalism so I can only imagine the kind of pressure journalists live under in an era of declining circulation, shrinking newsrooms, and a move to click-rates and retweets as the currency of success.
With that caveat, I guess I’d start by advising people in the business or those getting into journalism to embrace one of the things I love most about the profession: the opportunity it provides to continually learn about new things that have to be interesting if you want other people to read about them. There aren’t many other fields where discovering and exploring novel topics on a daily basis are part of the job description.
Changes in the media landscape also provide writers opportunities to practice their craft and get feedback from diverse audiences. If your day job doesn’t give you the opportunity to write long-form essays or editorials, for example, find a web site that does or create your own blog. Even if you don’t attract a million followers, writing for an audience is a huge motivator to improve your work and requires you to continually come up with interesting things to say.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main parts of our interview. According to this Gallup poll 45% of Americans trust the mass media. As an insider, are there 5 things that editors and newsrooms can do to increase the levels of trust? Can you give some examples?
An important critical-thinking technique involves looking behind stunning numbers that might simplify a complex story. For example, the Gallup number of 45% is meant to illustrate that a majority of Americans don’t trust the media. But if you click on that link, which brings you to the actual poll results, you’ll see that trust in media has actually increased over the last four years, that levels of trust vary considerably based on party affiliation, and that declining levels of trust in the mass media seem to track with the declining monopoly mass media has had over the news since the 1970s.
With that little critical-thinking demo done, it is still a fact that many people approach the media — or at least specific media sources — with suspicion, which has made it easier for politicians to ignore or rail against media sources that say things they don’t like. So here are some critical-thinking insights that might improve the situation (also summed up in this video):
1. Understand and get your hands around bias
For media critics (including those within the media), the term “bias” tends to be used primarily as an accusation against specific media sources that slant the news, usually in favor of one political party or the other. While this is one accurate use of the word “bias,” we need to understand biases of individuals and institutions much more deeply if we want to be effective producers and consumers of news.
As I mentioned when I talked about Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, we all have cognitive biases hard-wired into our brains, including confirmation bias: the tendency to accept information that confirms what we already believe and reject information that does not, whether or not that information is true or false.
There are also biases baked into institutions. For example, there are cable news outlets, as well as publications and countless web sites, that cater to customers with specific political beliefs. And even news sources that try to maintain objectivity are impacted by biases that have emerged with the new media, such as a bias towards getting a news story out before anyone else does, or a preference for stories that lend themselves to attention-grabbing headlines.
While we cannot eliminate bias from ourselves or from institutions entirely, we can identify it, be honest about it, and do what we can to control for it, with an understanding that navigating our own biases when we produce the news, and other people’s biases when they consume it, are going to be ongoing processes. At the very least, we need to avoid falling prey to the assumption that bias is something the other guy is guilty of, while claiming that media sources that reflect opinions we prefer are “fair and balanced.”
2. Understand that the media is in the argumentation business
Outside of yesterday’s sports results and weather stats, no news story relies on “just the facts.” Rather, facts are presented within any news story or feature in ways that supports conclusions the author of a story wants the reader to accept. In other words, all journalism — and not just editorial writing — is bult around arguments.
Even the weather reporter is making an argument whenever he or she puts forth a prediction. In that case, existing weather data serve as premises of an argument that supports a conclusion regarding what the weather is supposed to be like tomorrow.
Given that arguments are the primary way human beings communicate what they believe to be true, journalists should not be embarrassed by the fact that they are also in the argumentation business. But we should understand what that means by learning how to identify the logical structure of arguments (ones we read, and ones we write) and how to evaluate those arguments for strength and weakness.
When I teach students how to write essays, I tell them to replace traditional outlines with an organizational system that allows them to identify logical structures so they can see if their arguments are any good. Journalists need to also be able to determine if the arguments they are making are valid or sound, and if they aren’t, they need to know how to fix them so that other people (i.e., readers) won’t see their weaknesses.
3. The world is not just facts and opinions
Failing to appreciate the role of argumentation in journalism leaves us prey to the fallacy that the world consists of facts that can be proven true or false, with everything else an opinion (or, worse, “just an opinion”).
For example, if someone uses the fact that they have been in lockdown for months while COVID deaths keep going up to claim that social distancing has been a failure, they are making an argument. That argument contains two premises (lockdown has gone on for months, and COVID deaths have increased during that time) leading to a conclusion (that social distancing has failed).
Now you could subject the premises of that argument to fact-checking all day long, but since they are both true, does that mean we should treat the conclusion (that social distancing has failed) as just a matter of opinion? No! Because those premises — regardless of how true they are — do not provide sufficient reasons to accept the conclusion, which means the argument fails not because it is based on lies, but because it is logically flawed (in argumentation terms, it lacks validity).
As creators and consumers of news, we need to be able to ferret out not just the truth or falsehood of facts, but the strength and weakness of reasons that connect those facts to conclusions. Fact-checking is vital, but fact-checking without logic-checking leaves us vulnerable to anyone (including politicians and advertisers) skilled at using true facts to convince you of a lie.
4. Peer through the rhetoric
Journalism is all about language, and journalists are particularly adept at spotting when language is being misused, or used to communicate BS. But there are specific language skills that need to be practiced in order to get to the bottom of what people are really communicating.
For example, a critical thinker (which should include all journalists) needs to be able to translate everyday spoken or written language into unambiguous statements, then fit those statements into a logical argument that can be analyzed for strength and weakness. This provides journalists a structured method for peering through rhetoric to determine what people are actually saying.
Speaking of rhetoric, there are techniques for communicating persuasively (including word schemes, tropes and verbal strategies), as well as errors in logic (called fallacies) that provide insights that can elude you if you know nothing about logic and rhetoric. Did you know that the Biden campaign has been trafficking in equivocation (a fallacy that takes advantage of ambiguity in language) when trying to obscure plans to pack the Supreme Court? Or that Donald Trump’s bizarre first debate performance was an example of a rhetorical technique called argumentation from outrage?
Grasping rhetorical tools that have been used to persuade audiences for over two-thousand years allows journalists to spot when those techniques are being used to mislead. It also expands the toolset they have available to make their own logical and honest arguments (i.e., their news stories, features and editorials) as persuasive and powerful as they can be.
5. Teach others to become skilled critical thinkers about the news
I know a number of journalists involved with media and news literacy projects for K-12 students or adult news consumers, and most professionals find themselves teaching or mentoring younger journalists at some point in their careers.
These are all education projects, and the good news is that the critical-thinker’s toolset I have been describing (logic, argumentation, language, persuasive communication, etc.) can be learned by anyone. Journalists who master these skills and put them to use will improve their craft and increase their credibility. And news consumers will better understand the media they read, listen to, or watch if they put the effort into becoming skilled critical thinkers.
Journalists who benefit from mastering the critical-thinker’s toolkit should not keep the experience to themselves but should be ready to share what they have learned by educating fellow journalists and the public. If the media wants to rebuild trust, they should stop treating their audiences as customers who need their biases confirmed, but instead assume they are writing for thoughtful citizens who look to the news to help them better understand the world and make sound decisions.
As you know, since 2016, the term ‘fake news” has entered common usage. Do you think this new awareness has made a change in the day-to-day process of how journalists craft stories? Can you give some examples?
I’ve never been a big fan of the term “fake news” which reduces a wide range of potential problems in news coverage to a single slur.
First off, there are different sources of error that enter the media stream: honest human mistakes, inadequate fact-checking, up to deliberate choices to publish incorrect or unsubstantiated material. There are also all kinds of reasons why a media source might make an error, from rushing to publication due to competitive pressures, to biased reporters and editors writing and publishing something they want to be true, to deliberate choices to deceive the public.
Accusing the media of trafficking in fakery collapses all of these problems into a single cause — mendacity — that smears all journalists, not just those responsible for error. I know it can be hard during an era when politicians are demagoguing against the media, but journalists are still responsible for ensuring stories are checked and checked again, that bias does not distort editorial judgement, and that errors are corrected swiftly, honestly and publicly.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Your current job is just one chapter in your career. As my bio points out, I’ve changed jobs and even careers a number of times, and leaving jobs or paths not taken felt like failures until very recently. Given that today’s college graduates are likely to have many jobs and other experiences over their lifetime, I hope they’ll take advice I never received to treat whatever they are doing today as a chapter in a complex career story that will have ups and downs, but should never be made up of things you don’t like to do or don’t find fulfilling.
- Never stop learning. Back in the 2000s, I got hooked on a podcast called The History of Rome which got me interested in ancient history, which got me interested in ancient philosophy, which led to my One Year BA (in which I majored in modern philosophy), which led to my current career teaching critical thinking. So never stop learning new things, even after you stop being involved with formal education, and never be surprised by where a topic that sparks your interest might take you.
- Don’t be afraid to be wrong, especially about important stuff. Critical thinking literature talks about dispositions or intellectual virtues required to be a critical thinker, one of which is intellectual humility: an understanding that you might be wrong. This is often hard to do, especially about issues central to our identities, but by “questioning our priors,” i.e., subjecting our own beliefs to the same scrutiny we use when analyzing arguments we disagree with, we can avoid the types of biases that causes misunderstanding and distorted judgement that leads to bad decisions and dysfunctional politics.
- Stand up for what you believe. Intellectual courage is another critical thinking disposition, an intellectual virtue that asks you to stand up and defend positions you believe. This might seem to be in conflict with intellectual humility, but the positions you should defend are ones that have survived rigorous and honest questioning and analysis on your part. This kind of intellectual work leaves you with strong reasons to believe what you believe, a far sturdier base than simply believing what you’ve always believed, what you want to believe, or what you’ve been told.
- Be flexible, but never compromise your integrity. As an entrepreneur, I’ve often grown frustrated when working inside large institution, and wish someone had given me advice early in my career about navigating organizations with complex hierarchies. Over the years, I’ve learned to be flexible when dealing with institutions with competing demands, recognizing my own impatience can be a brake on progress. At the same time, you need to be ready to walk away whenever compromise requires crossing an uncrossable ethical line.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve dedicated my life to the proposition that a critical-thinking population in a society that values reasoning our way through problems represents the best chance for functional politics and a better world. To achieve this end, I would love to see the education system reformed to ensure every student — regardless of demographics and income — is taught the tools needed to be a critical thinker. And given that our society already celebrates physical strength and prowess on the sports field, or raw knowledge on game shows like Jeopardy, why can’t we also find ways to culturally celebrate those who put their intellect to work by applying critical-thinking skills to solve the world’s problems?
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Twitter @DegreeofFree. You can also check out my web sites:
Thank you so much for your time you spent on this. We greatly appreciate it, and wish you continued success!