There’s a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s scathing journalism send-up “Scoop” where Wenlock Jakes, the world-beating American reporter (based on John Gunther of the old Chicago Daily News), is sent to the Balkans to write about a war. Jakes sleeps through his train stop, but when he walks off the train into a peaceful capital he nonetheless conjures stories of conflict so convincing that war soon breaks out in the nation he’s entered.
Jakes’ fake war gives us a perfect send-up of journalistic confirmation bias, the process by which people choose only to see evidence that affirms their current point of view, ignoring anything that might contradict it. Journalists are supposed to see the real story and tell it. But sometimes we want to believe our own stories badly enough that we make them true, regardless of the evidence in front of us.
Confirmation bias presents an obstinate thing to overcome. Ask anyone who writes about climate change. Little things can actually help more than big ones. Yes, writers bridle at challenges to their authority, and so do editors. In the end, though, confirmation bias can cause us to want our stories to be the truth, rather than reflect it. Given the consequences, a few basic questions are well worth asking.