When I was in school, I didn’t master a foreign language. Sometimes I wish I had applied myself more earnestly to my studies so I could talk in French when I visit Paris. I do, however, take comfort in the vocabularies of a different kind that I’ve learned by talking with Wharton faculty. They answer my questions about everyday life from an academic perspective, which enriches my conversations with colleagues and friends (and my blog posts).
I recently spoke with Duncan Watts, professor of operations, information and decisions and head of the Penn Media Accountability Project, his research initiative at Penn’s Computational Social Science Lab in partnership with Analytics at Wharton (as detailed in Wharton Magazine ‘s current cover story). Our engaging conversation about bias in the news provided me with some best practices that apply to both media consumption and life in general.
Duncan teaches that when we see statistics in the media, we should ask ourselves, “Compared to what?” Identifying a common denominator helps put a statistic in context that a news story might not provide. This thought reminded me of a family member who asked me why I thought she got so anxious as she prepared for a difficult conversation. Recalling Duncan’s question, I asked her for context: How did her level of anxiety in this instance compare to conversations with others in different situations?
Responding with a question also kept me from immediately replying with an opinion. Remembering that nothing exists in a vacuum and that everything is relative to something else helps us check our bias. Even with my family member, bias exists because of what I know about her, what I think about anxiety, and the content of the difficult conversation. Having her reflect on how this situation compared to others in her life made our conversation more meaningful.
I also asked Duncan if he had tips to help the everyday consumer separate facts from bias in news. Without saying yes specifically, he offered these general observations:
- No one can understand how everything works and no one can do all their own research. We must trust people, so be mindful of who you trust. Read different accounts of events, particularly ones that disagree.
- Everyone writes from a point of view. Some POVs are disguised as fact, but every writer has bias and blind spots.
- Check what you are pre-inclined to believe about the subject of the story, particularly if it’s someone who evokes strong negative reactions. Ask yourself: “If someone I admired did these same things, would I also think it was bad?”
- Reread number two! Duncan emphasized how important it is to seek out other perspectives, especially when you agree with what you are reading.
These steps apply to relationship dynamics, too. We need to remember to get multiple accounts when problems arise and to acknowledge the POVs of those accounts. Then we should ask ourselves, how would I feel if I were the one in this situation? Would I react differently if one of my team members were involved? Remembering to question what we think — and to challenge our own biases before we act — will make us better equipped to navigate complexities in media, at work, and at home.
Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.