Character  &  Context

Explanatory Journalism and the Intellectual Abyss

Image of Vox: Understand the News

By Dave Nussbaum

Psychology figured prominently in last week’s launch of the much-anticipated website. Their goal is to help people understand the news, an approach that’s picked up the title “explanatory journalism”:

“The media is excellent at reporting the news and pretty good at adding commentary atop the news. What’s lacking is an organization genuinely dedicated to explaining the news. That is to say, our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened.”

Given that mission, it’s encouraging to see Ezra Klein (@ezraklein), one of the site’s founders, immediately grapple with the question of what that really means. In an interview with Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition), Klein tackles the problem of motivated reasoning, particularly in the context of identity politics. In the article Klein is mostly discussing partisan conflict, but clearly the same set of issues confronts journalists. If ideological and self-serving beliefs come first and facts only follow later (and often to reinforce beliefs rather than to test them), then it’s not only difficult for Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything, it’s also hard for journalists to distinguish objective facts from motivated beliefs.

“To spend much time with Kahan’s research,” Klein writes, “is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss. If the work of gathering evidence and reasoning through thorny, polarizing political questions is actually the process by which we trick ourselves into finding the answers we want, then what’s the right way to search for answers? How can we know the answers we come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, aren’t just more motivated cognition?”

So what can a journalist do to at least hang on at the edge of this intellectual abyss? It may be impossible to be completely free of bias, but there are some things in the psychologist’s bag of tricks that could prove useful in the aspiration towards intellectual honesty. Here are just a few:

One of my personal favorites has long been the practice of “considering the opposite.” People have a tendency to contort any new information to support their pre-existing beliefs, but explicitly considering whether they would have reached the same conclusion given the opposite pattern of data can help them overcome this bias. It’s worth noting that just telling people to be fair and unbiased (not to be confused with fair and balanced™) does not have the same corrective effect as the explicit instruction to consider the opposite.

Another relatively simple frame switch that can help journalists – and anyone else for that matter – catch themselves when they begin to wander into motivated reasoning comes from Tom Gilovich’s book, How We Know What Isn’t So(it’s also a great place to start for anyone interested in how people manage to convince themselves of what they want to believe). Gilovich suggests that people approach things that they want to be true with the question “Can I believe this?” while things they’d prefer not to be true with the question “Must I believe this?” Unsurprisingly, the different questions lead to different answers based on disparate standards of evide

nce. It’s worth asking “Can I believe this?” of arguments that trigger your skeptical side. The answer may end up being, “No, I can’t believe this,” but even then the exercise is likely to be useful. For example, it could help reveal the assumptions you would have to make to believe it, which can help you understand where the argument is coming from, even if you disagree with it. It seems that very often we dismiss our ideological adversaries as craven, biased, or delusional when they’re being intellectually honest (or at least trying to be), but coming at things with a different set of assumptions, values, or goals.

Finally, journalists would do well to consider Phil Tetlock’s work onaccountability. Left to their own devices, Tetlock finds that people grant themselves a lot more leeway in the soundness of their reasoning than when they have an audience. It depends, of course, who that audience is. A politician speaking at a Tea Party rally or a union gathering is not necessarily going to tell it like it is. But the role of journalists is to serve as an audience that will keep people honest.

One major critique leveled at the media has been that they offer equal time to both sides in an unequal debate. Some people say that global warming is real, others claim it isn’t, tune in at eleven. What’s missing is any semblance of accountability for each side’s claims. There’s nothing wrong with presenting both sides of an argument, even if it’s not a fair fight, but a good explanation helps the reader figure out which claims are supported by the facts. When one side’s arguments are cynical  (see Exhibit A) or divorced from reality, that’s worth knowing. But explanatory journalism may be most valuable when one side is on the losing end of an argument but legitimately believes its points. Then a good explanation can reveal the commitments that constrain and blind its advocates and leave the reader genuinely better informed.


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