The Biased Media: Part 2

Is it OK for news articles to actively try to change your opinion? Is the role of news merely to inform or instead to shape your thoughts? If a journalist aggressively tries to change your mind, then they are obviously biased, and bias is a flaw, correct?

In my previous post, The Biased Media: Part 1, I disagreed, arguing that all humans, journalists included, are biased. We see the world through our lens, which limits our view. The flaw is not whether the media is biased, but instead if it seeks to manipulate versus persuade you to its opinion.

Persuading you, I believe, is OK. It is manipulation that is wrong. In my previous post, I discussed several common tools of manipulation: ad hominem attacks, appeals to emotions, and so on. These tricks short-circuit your rational brain, play on your own cognitive biases, and at times, outright deceive you. These are not the foundations of reasoned social debate. Yet, if you scan the news (or worse, social media), you will find these have become the foundation of our social discourse.

Perhaps we have such strong reactions to media trying to change our mind because so much of it comes in the guise of manipulation. We see these tricks clearly when that article in question opposes our view. Yet, how much of the media that supports your view uses the same methods? If the media you consume uses these tricks of manipulation, how can you be sure that they did not trick you into your views?

We can do better.

Media that seeks to persuade rather than manipulate

People interpret the word persuasion differently. In this context, I use it to refer to news (or politicians, or friends, or whoever) that use tools of reasoned debate to sway your opinion. Rather than trick you, they seek to use reason to convince you.

How do we tell the difference between someone trying to use reason to convince us versus manipulation? To decide, I look for elements of a formal argument. Formal arguments have a minimum of three parts: two premises and a conclusion. For example:

  • Premise 1: Animals have four legs.
  • Premise 2: Cats have four legs.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, cats are animals.

There are many ways writers can build on this theme, but premise-premise-conclusion is the foundation. If I read a news article and can identify a series of premises leading to a conclusion, alright, the author is respecting me enough to use reason rather than cheap parlour tricks to convince me.

Since they have shown you respect, it is only fair to return the favour and judge their argument using reason. How is this done?

You might reject a formal argument for either of two reasons. First, you might challenge the author’s premises. For example, monkeys only have two legs, yet they are animals. Therefore, my above argument is flawed. I need to either revise or abandon my view.

Second, you might argue the conclusion is false. For example,

  • Premise 1: Dogs have four legs.
  • Premise 2: Tables have four legs.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, a table is a dog.

Both premises are factually correct, but the conclusion is wrong.

If you find yourself debating others, you will see this approach leads to meaningful outcomes, if you both agree to abide by this process.

Why is this important?

As the preponderance of manipulative media increases, we have lost some of our capacity to debate important issues. This loss is tragic. Without the ability to debate meaningfully, how are we to solve problems of climate change, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, starvation in a world of plenty, and so on?

The tools of manipulation I discussed in my previous post are not meant to inform, nor are they intended to change the mind of the non-believer. They are tools of control. They entrench beliefs rather than challenge them. They manipulate you into joining a side.

If you encounter a news article or a friend seeking to sway your opinion, that is OK. Our views need challenging. That is how we advance. Consider, however, the means through which they attempt to do so. Do they use cheap tricks of manipulation or try to establish a reasoned argument?

If they are attempting to establish a reasoned argument, even though you may disagree with them, even though their reasoning may have weaknesses, I feel it is important to engage with that viewpoint. The person respected your mind enough to present as reasoned a debate as they could. Repay that respect by engaging with their view as a reasoned person.

Our stories have power

They are how we understand and change the world. What media or people have you seen that consistently try to use reasoned arguments to advance their ideas? How have you turned disagreements from shouting matches into reasoned debates? The world needs to hear those stories. Please share them. I would enjoy reading them in the comments below.

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