Think about the last story you published. Do you remember the catalyst for working on it? Often the starting point for journalists is a “why” question: Why do voters support this candidate? Why are migrants fleeing their countries? Why are bees in danger of extinction? Why did so many people die in this incident? Why did a certain politician lie? The answers to such questions help journalists, and the audience, make sense of the world and feel like they are making well informed decisions in life.
In this article of the series "Psychology for Journalists", we will explore how being aware of underlying biases when people explain behaviours and events can help journalists ...
better discern when people are more likely to be biassed
go deeper when interviewing people
empathise with the motivations behind people’s opinions and attitudes, and build a more nuanced narrative in their reporting
go beyond the answers to “why” and amplify stories with a more solutions-focused approach using "what now" and "what for".
Causal attribution in a nutshell
From trivial moments (someone cutting in line) to more critical events (a major flood, or a political turmoil), it is human nature to look for reasons for why things happen or why people do what they do. Cognitive psychologists call this “causal attribution”: the process of giving an explanation for an event or behaviour — attributing a cause. According to attribution theory, this is how people make sense of the world, and develop some sense of control and predictability, which helps them feel prepared for the future, among other things (1).
However, as we all know, different people may assign different explanations to the exact same event or behaviour. Why?
In a perfect world, people would only attribute a cause to an event or behaviour after careful examination of all information available. However, we know this isn't true — people take shortcuts to make sense of the world. In fact, doing so is a very important adaptive ability because it wouldn't be feasible for people to consider every factor all the time (2). But while filling in information gaps in the causal attribution process, people are subject to unconscious psychological mechanisms that lead to cognitive biases (3). Researchers have identified and systematised a number of these in the last decades. Below we will discuss some of the most important ones (fundamental attribution error, self-serving bias and victim blaming) and explain why they are relevant for the work of journalists.
The fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error is one of the most studied and basic attribution biases. When people are explaining the behaviours of others, they tend to overestimate personal factors (e.g., personality, skills, beliefs) and overlook or downplay situational factors (e.g., environmental features, time pressure, societal norms) — “The politician stuttered during the interview, because he is incompetent” (even if the situation was very stressful and the question poorly asked) (3, 4).
Why does this happen?
One of the reasons for fundamental attribution error is that the “protagonist” of an action seems more prominent and attracts more attention during perception and information processing, whereas the situational factors form the backdrop for the event or are simply not perceivable to observers at all (5).
Also, if we believe that someone is acting in a certain way simply based on their personality (such as the “incompetent politician” or a “reckless person” cutting in line), the world becomes a more predictable place, thereby giving us a feeling of psychological safety. On the other hand, if we attribute the behaviour to a complex interplay of variable factors within the particular situation, we cannot generalise in any way, but need to examine all pieces of evidence every time anew.
Check out the “tools and tips” section for specific strategies professionals can use to acknowledge and counteract the effect of the fundamental attribution error.
People have the tendency to justify their own positive behaviours with internal characteristics (“I gave a concise statement in the TV interview because I am a competent politician”) and to explain their own failures with factors from the context (“I lost track and stuttered because the situation was entirely unclear at that point in time and the journalist’s question badly phrased”) (e.g., 6). That happens because people have an intrinsic motivation to view themselves in a positive light and preserve their self-esteem (7).
This even happens to journalists. For example, the self-serving bias might stop journalists from asking themselves questions to assess their own professionality, such as: "Am I cherry-picking from my research and neglecting examples of the protagonists’ behaviours from other occasions/times?"; "Did I cross-check my facts and the accuracy of the terms I'm using?"; “If the topic went against my personal values or beliefs, did that impact my reporting?” When people allow themselves to engage in vulnerable conversations about their reporting and embrace self-reflection as a regular practice, they will be practising more critical journalism, and sometimes even finding unique viewpoints that might not be unveiled in a more defensive approach to work.
Self-serving attribution biases have also been shown to occur in groups — group-serving biases (8). Elections are a paradigmatic situation in which people often use internal characteristics to explain the successes of “their” groups and use external factors to justify their failures, e.g. “Our party won because we managed the pandemic well”; “Our party lost because the economy is in crisis due to the war”. The reverse applies for groups that people don’t belong to. For example, in sports, which is known for sparking a strong group attribution effect (9): “Their team lost because their defence is very weak” or “They won the game because the referee made calls in their favour”.
When journalists are portraying opinions within groups (parties, civil organisations, professional associations, etc.), a particular aspect journalists should examine to avoid assigning misleading attributions to members is how and why decisions are made within the collective structure.
Consider this example: In early November 2022, Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) Secretary-General Jerónimo de Sousa, who had been in charge for 18 years, stepped down. A few days later, the party announced that a new leader, Paulo Raimundo, had been “unanimously elected”. The expression was largely quoted in the media, in some cases like this Rádio Renascença’s article without clear background information. However, in the PCP (as in other communist systems) there are no internal general elections for the leadership; the voting happens only within the central committee. The group attribution effect could lead people to believe that all party members were in favour of the decision and that there was no opposition within the party.
In election coverage, understanding how voting processes are conducted (e.g., who participates and whether different members’ votes carry more or less weight), what the results could indicate (landslide victory or squeaked in) and what’s at stake in the outcome (shifts in balance of power) could help journalists pose sharper questions, find divergent voices and be more accurate in their reporting.
Another relevant topic as far as assessing groups is concerned is that of automatically assigning generic characteristics to certain groups. We will elaborate on the foundations of stereotypes, prejudices, their consequences and strategies to counteract them in a future article — you can subscribe to our newsletter for notifications!
The fundamental attribution error and the self-serving effect as described above are mostly Western-centric (Europe and US), where cultures are mainly individualistic. Attribution patterns are different in more collectivist cultures, such as those of Asian and South American countries (10). In those cases, people see themselves as more interdependent and holistically embedded in context, and therefore, they tend not to underestimate situational factors as people in the West are prone to do (11). In addition, the self-serving or group-serving biases tend to be considerably smaller in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures — people don’t put as much weight on enhancing their self-worth, and rather stress how supportive others or circumstances have helped them succeed (12). As societies become more culturally diverse, journalists will be doing more responsible journalism whenever they confirm if their work is considering how people from different cultures psychologically and socially process the situation in question. On top, it will of course be interesting to see how migration and globalisation affect seemingly systematic cultural differences.
Among causal attribution biases, victim blaming is one in which the explanation for behaviours relies more heavily on personal factors. It occurs when someone reacts to a particular negative event by assigning responsibility to the victim(s) (13). People say that someone was robbed because they weren’t careful enough; that victims of sexual harassment or rape are to blame because they didn’t leave the site while being abused; that transgender people are attacked because they provoke others by the way they look, etc.
Victim blaming happens because:
it is cognitively easier and less resource-consuming to make quick assumptions about the person concerned without having to delve into complex social circumstances (14)
it is emotionally difficult to accept that injustices exist and that there are people going through such painful adversities without having done anything to deserve it (15)
this is true in particular for people who hold a strong “belief in a just world” (16), i.e., a belief that everybody gets what they deserve, in a positive as well as in a negative sense
it gives people a sense of control over their lives (“It is their own fault. I would never do that/be like that, so this will never happen to me”) (17).
Journalists need to be aware that victim blaming perpetuates stigmatisation and hinders people’s ability to be empathetic and act in helpful ways. One essential first step journalists can take to counteract victim blaming when there is a personal confrontation is to carefully identify which behaviours were actually harmful— is the harmful behaviour leaving personal belongings unattended or stealing? Is it not leaving the site during an assault or assaulting? Is it dressing in a certain way or attacking a person? Once this distinction is done, journalists will be able to make more rigorous decisions about focus and framing, including language and grammar.
For example, consider the headline: “Drunk woman raped at a party” (this headline was created here as an example, but it’s representative of many real-life cases, as victim blaming is highly common in the context of violence against women). In this phrase, the focus is on the woman, even though the harmful behaviour is the aggression — and the aggressor isn’t mentioned at all. On top of that, there’s a spotlight on the fact that the woman was drunk, which has no relevance whatsoever to excuse the perpetrator’s behaviour. Note that other circumstances that have been shown to accentuate victim blaming following a rape include cases in which the victim knows the offender (family member, friend, co-worker) and when no physical force was used (17). In the example above, a non-victim blaming alternative would bring the aggressor to the stage and articulate their active role in raping the woman. Check the difference between the original example and a possible alternative: “Drunk woman raped at a party" vs “Man rapes woman at party”.
Every news story that doesn’t perpetuate victim blaming leads to more transformative reporting, as it contributes to: 1) more victims feeling empowered to report their experiences without fear of being blamed; 2) perpetrators being held accountable for their actions; and 3) audiences having a better understanding of systemic issues underlying abuse or violence and being more empathetic towards victims.
Victim blaming also impacts groups of people on a broader scale, e.g., “homeless people live on the streets because they refuse any help”, “poor people are lazy”, “unemployed people don’t want to work”, etc. Shifting the narrative and the mindset about structural, society-level circumstances is equally important; for example, taking the impact of socio-economic disparities into consideration.
Tools and tips for journalists
Start with a moment of self-reflection:
Think about the groups you are reporting about and consider whether you belong to or sympathise with any of them
When you make attributions to the actions of groups you tend to agree with, contemplate whether your self-image could be interfering with your judgement
Avoid the fundamental attribution error by explicitly considering the particular circumstances of an event or behaviour: when you are certain that the reasons lie in something’s or someone’s nature, research whether this is stable across time and space. How did that person behave in the past? How did comparable events turn out?
When you are doing your research and writing your story:
Pay attention to whether people are overvaluing personal compared to contextual factors — and whether they are explaining their own actions or the actions of another person
Look for and try to include both situational elements and individual traits when explaining someone’s actions
Avoid putting too much weight on either one or the other — especially if that misleads the audience to imbalanced conclusions.
To avoid engaging in a victim blaming narrative:
Make sure your focus is on the harmful behaviour and the person enacting it — that is most likely why the event is in the news. An exception to the tip is when the story is about strategies that victims use to deal with and/or overcome the emotional, social, professional, financial impact of the event. In that case, it is important that the focus is on the solutions and on the victims — how people came up with those solutions, what concrete steps they took (useful contacts and links, and bureaucratic work, for example), difficulties they might have encountered along the way, etc.
Avoid using the passive voice to associate the action with the victim — e.g., “immigrant was physically assaulted” (read Part 2 of this article series for more on the power of language);
Don’t oversimplify the narrative — consider asking experts about the psychological processes underlying the actions of the people involved, and variability due to situational factors.
Don’t get stuck in the answers to “why” questions. Once a situation has been described, go beyond its explanation and consider exploring …
which factors were protective for the victims while dealing with the negative consequences of the event. For example, in the case of the investigations about child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church, besides describing how and why those abuses occurred and were kept in silence, you can also sensibly address the victims and ask about the factors that were crucial to help them to deal with the trauma. Those answers can make a big difference for other sexual abuse victims reading your story, as they validate their emotions and provide examples of coping strategies.
what can be learned from the exceptions. In other words: what are the circumstances when things go well? For example: as companies struggle to improve diversity and inclusion, journalists can highlight best practice examples of businesses that are doing a good job of recruiting, promoting and retaining workers from marginalised backgrounds. (See side box for more information about this approach.)
whether there are situations similar to the one you are reporting about that ended up being positively transformational for those involved. If so, consider including them in your story as lessons learned and examples of possible constructive developments — restorative justice stories might be a good example.
Asking about exceptions
This tip is inspired by the therapeutic framework “solution-focused brief therapy” (SFBT), developed by the American psychotherapist Steve de Shazer (18). Among other techniques, SFBT seeks exceptions to identify the factors and circumstances in place when the problem is not affecting the individuals — days when the person was experiencing well-being; situations in which the couple didn’t argue; work meetings when the person didn’t suffer from high levels of anxiety; etc.
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- Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711-747.
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