Evelyn Waugh and Confirmation Bias

The journalism website of the  Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, Storyboard, carries an article by Michael Fitzgerald that cites a brief episode of Scoop as an example of a phenomenon that should be avoided by future journalists. This is known as “confirmation bias:” 

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.

Fitzgerald cites two recent cases where “confirmation bias” lead to embarrassing results. These are the 2014 Rolling Stone story of the alleged rape on the University of Virginia campus and the sports news website SBNation’s story of a former football player accused of being a serial rapist. Both stories had to be pulled after publication when defects began to appear which should have been obvious beforehand. 

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