Dealing with racism and the serpent of confirmation bias


Reporting on race and racism, the scourge plaguing the social fibre of South African society, is probably one of the most difficult media ethical dilemmas journalists face. 

Penny Sparrow, Velaphi Khumalo, Vicky Momberg, Julius Malema, Adam Catzavelos, Suzanne Govender, Nkola Motata – all are prominent examples of racial slurs the media have extensively been reporting on in the recent past. Many more examples of racial insults probably fill the social media ether, examples of stereotyping in the worst possible way. 

Complaints about News24's reporting of these racism incidents land on my desk regularly. A few of these are from vexatious complainants who clearly do not understand the duty of the media to report news as accurately and truthfully as possible, while trying to minimise harm in the process, and fiercely guarding their independence from interest and pressure groups who do not like to hear the message of racism in their fold. 

Others are more balanced and question the media's willingness to give attention to the derogative way some people use words to describe other ethnic groups in this "wide and woeful land, alone under the great southern stars", to quote Guy Butler's translation of NP van Wyk Louw's Die Dieper Reg

How social media influence, direct, distort and blow up these incidents of racial intolerance is a study by itself and a diligent litigator scouring Twitter, Facebook and Instagram would most probably find enough cases to prosecute racists for many years. 

People tend to use social media as a personal megaphone to broadcast their prejudices. Yet they totally underestimate the damage they cause, quite often even venturing into the more serious legal problem of defamation, beyond crimen injuria – which landed Momberg two years in jail. 

A litany of South African defamation cases is waiting in the wings after the benchmark H v W case of 2013 in which Justice Willis found for the plaintiff following defamatory remarks on Facebook. 

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Prof Emily Bell of Columbia University's Journalism School in New York, emphasised that our "news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred... Social media hasn't just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security" (my emphasis). 

Add to that the way many people forget decency and their manners in the use of social media to say scurrilous things about others. 

How far should News24 go in its use of extreme racist social media examples when reporting the way people think about an issue? News24 has been accused of using these tweets in an unbalanced way by over-emphasising the racism of whites (Sparrow, Momberg, Catzavelos) and not giving enough attention to Malema's racist rants against whites and Indians, and the racist utterances of Judge Motata, Velaphi Khumalo and others. 

The serpent of confirmation bias

I have yet to find evidence of this alleged bias; when I regularly give numerous examples to two or three complainants of the balanced way in which News24 has thus far in my view reported on racism across all races, the serpent of confirmation bias raises its head. 

Confirmation bias is one of the most common human traits that can derail getting to the truth. In a nutshell, it means you close your eyes and ears, your whole sensory experience to contradictory information clashing with what you have been believing. It leads you to reject or ignore the evidence that refutes, disproves, invalidates and rebuts your belief system. 

It "occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true," as the psychologist Shahram Heshmat describes it. "Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it."

How does confirmation bias distort our thinking? An example from the scientific world illustrates this. 

The role played by chance in life is often completely ignored. Brain cancer, cell phones – there must be a link; the cell phone tower in our suburb and the occurrence of cancer – how can it not be that the electronic signals are affecting our health? 

In The Tiger That Isn't (Profile Books), journalist Michael Blastland and economist Andrew Dilnot relate the story of a group of residents of the English village Wishaw who, in 2003, sabotaged a cell phone tower that had been standing in a field outside the town for ten years, causing it to fall over. They believed that the reason why nine out of twenty households within 500 metres of the tower had developed cancer was because of the cell phone tower. 

Their reactions and fears were a natural phenomenon that occurs all over the world: the principle of the logical fallacy of confirmation bias (post hoc ergo propter hoc): the people in the neighbourhood develop cancer because the tower is there. It is logical to draw the conclusion that if two things happen at the same time, there has to be some or other link between them.

Because we are a member of a specific race, our confirmation bias ignores the evidence that contradicts our belief system and wishful thinking, that our ethnic group's racism is not that serious and that we should rather find the racism of other groups and focus on that. 

When it comes to our interpretation of news events, also regarding race and the way we see other races, confirmation bias is one of the most dangerous and iniquitous barriers obstructing our understanding of other people's experiences, hurts, wishes and desires. 

As journalists it is imperative that we should avoid confirmation bias – the wishful thinking factor that blurs and bedevils our vision of reality – at all costs, but the same applies to media consumers at the receiving end of the communication process. 

Often these complainants use Biblical references to point a finger at News24 but perhaps we can take a leaf from Matthew 7:5, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?"

The media's role is to point an optometrist's light into society's eyes, finding the specks and planks of all racism across the board, and the confirmation bias accompanying it.  

- Claassen is News24's public editor.

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