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Two Views of the Same News Find Opposite Biases

Members of the media trailed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat  --  shown with a refugee child  --  everywhere he went after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. That conflict led to some of the first studies of perception of bias. At top right, an Israeli airstrike on Beirut that year. At bottom right, two militants in Beirut fire on Israeli soldiers in 1982.
Members of the media trailed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- shown with a refugee child -- everywhere he went after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. That conflict led to some of the first studies of perception of bias. At top right, an Israeli airstrike on Beirut that year. At bottom right, two militants in Beirut fire on Israeli soldiers in 1982. (By Mourad Abdel Raouf -- Associated Press)

"If I think the world is black, and you think the world is white, and someone comes along and says it is gray, we will both think that person is biased," Ross said.

The experiment, of course, did not address whether news reports were in fact biased -- who would decide? -- or how the media ought to cover conflicts. Partisans argue that assigning equal weight to both sides is wrong when one side (theirs) is right. In any event, psychologists such as Ross are less interested in rating the news or in which side is right than in the curiosities of human perception: Why are partisans invariably blind to how news coverage might help their side?

If someone says several nice things about you and one derogatory thing, what sticks in your mind? People who are deeply invested in one side are quicker to spot and remember aspects of the news that hurt than they are to see aspects that help, said Richard Perloff, a Cleveland State University political communication researcher.

Perloff elicited the same clashing perceptions of bias from pro-Israeli and pro-Arab audiences when he showed them news clips with equal amounts of violence.

Ross and Perloff both found that what partisans worry about the most is the impact of the news on neutral observers. But the data suggest such worry is misplaced. Neutral observers are better than partisans at seeing flaws and virtues on both sides. Partisans, it turns out, are particularly susceptible to the general human belief that other people are susceptible to propaganda.

"When you are persuaded by something, you don't think it is propaganda," Ross said. "Israelis know they see the world the way they do because they are Israelis, and Arabs, too. The difference is people think in their case, their special identities are a source of enlightenment, whereas other people's source of enlightenment is a source of bias."

Next Monday: What brain-imaging research shows about partisan behavior.

Staff writer Shankar Vedantam will be online today at 3 p.m. athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/scienceto answer questions about human behavior and evolution.


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