Under the streetlight effect
The unfortunate reality of media bias
The journalist’s job is to keep readers interested so they’ll read a newspaper from front to back and look at all of the advertisements.
However, unintentional bias can seep through.
Make no mistake: journalists do their best to try to keep you interested in a clear, informed and unbiased way.
But, perhaps the most notable way bias finds its way into journalistic content is through the “streetlight effect,” which is a form of observational bias that naturally occurs during research or investigation.
The premise of the streetlight effect is that people generally look where they expect to find things.
A classic example is somebody who dropped his or her keys in the street. They are more likely to look under a streetlight, where there is better visibility, rather than closer to where they dropped the keys.
We may not be looking for keys, but the bias is equally present in search of an interesting article.
For example, in October of last year, a video went viral about a student at Mount Royal University who was stopped and told to remove his “Make America Great Again” hat by another student.
It was an obvious choice for a story. Moreover, it was an obvious choice for an interesting story, so I wrote an editorial for The Weal about how it was another example of liberal students demanding a “safe space” at the cost of respectful conversation.
Every day, there seems to be another story in the news about safe spaces.
The reality is that the contents of that viral video are outrageous precisely because it’s something that our experience tells us would never happen to us.
The people standing there thought it was outrageous, so they filmed it. Then the people who saw the video thought it was outrageous, so they shared it and it went viral.
And then I saw it, and because I thought it was outrageous, I wrote an article about it.
I did not write any articles about the people who disagreed with his support of Donald Trump and decided to keep their opinions to themselves. Nor did I write any articles about the respectful conversations that his hat sparked.
I didn’t write those stories, because they wouldn’t have been interesting.
And in running only interesting stories journalists pass bias onto their readership.
It is difficult, after all, to develop a sense of scope on an issue for a reader who is bombarded with outlandish and unbelievable stories by the media, especially when those stories are all statistical outliers.
Cameron Briggs, a visual communications and design student at ACAD, said that it is important for people to recognize the ways our perspectives differ from reality.
“There’s no singular right perspective,” said Briggs. “But, perhaps by hearing different outlooks, something clearer can unfold.”
It’s presumptuous, she said, for anybody to assume that their views mesh 100 per cent with reality.
But reality is a fickle concept.