Confirmation bias: a case study
The other Friday, I had the privilege of speaking before over a thousand delegates taking part in De La Salle University’s exceptionally well-organized Student Media Congress. In direct response to the organizers’ request, I talked about how newspapers like the Inquirer were “redefining reading” and “taking print to the next level.”
I argued the following points: globally, print is very much alive; it has a future that will excite the younger generation; it will continue to form a part, even a leading part, of the media mix; and augmented reality (like INQSnap) is transforming print as we know it.
This is how the Rappler story, by David Lozada, reported my half-hour on the stage:
“Nery said that the print journalism industry is on a downward spiral in several parts of the world. He added that while there is still industry growth in the Philippines based on their company’s study, newspapers are slowly moving to online platforms to attract a younger audience.
“‘(The) newsprint industry is slowly migrating to the digital edition… Yes, print newspapers will still be around a few years from now. But they will be fewer,’ said Nery.”
None of my four main arguments, in other words, made it to David’s report. Even worse, the remarks he chose to advance the story make me appear like a print defeatist, passively counting down the years before digital (defined any which way) takes over the entire universe.
Perhaps I failed to do justice to my theses. I remember the unmistakable responsiveness of the audience (which even part-time teachers like me quickly recognize in terms of high energy levels), but maybe that was all due to the promise I made to the delegates, to raffle off an Inquirer Tablet. The offer was certainly something that attracted David’s attention.
Very soon after I made the announcement, he tweeted about me “giving away a tablet (LOL).” I was not able to save a copy of his tweet, so in this particular instance I am quoting from fallible memory, but I do remember the laugh-out-loud part. (For the record, and given the lack of nuance that Twitter is notorious for, I thought the tweet was an appropriate record-and-response.)
But I did manage to mark three tweets of his, two of them retweeted by Rappler’s own MovePH account, soon after my talk ended. They carried quotes from me: “It is important to set the news agenda.” (This was said after I spent the first few minutes of my talk presenting the Inquirer’s print-first scoop, my nominee for most important story of the year next only to the midterm elections, on the P10-billion pork barrel scam.) “There is still growth in the print journalism industry in the Philippines compared to other SEA countries.” And: “It’s great to see that we have many choices before us.” (Said, if I remember correctly, in answer to a student’s excellent question about the future role of print; my point was to reiterate the idea of a plurality of platforms, a media mix.)
None of these ideas made it to David’s story. To be sure, nobody expects a reporter to use every single note he takes down (and tweets can be usefully thought of as notes-in-progress). My purpose in detailing David’s tweets is simply to prove that he did hear some (perhaps even all) of my main points, but still didn’t use them in his story. Why was that?
My educated guess: It didn’t fit in with the digital-only worldview that Rappler espouses and which David presumably shares. I spoke about turning the page into a screen, about the historical pattern of platforms coexisting side by side, about exciting circulation growth in Asia, about the continuing preference for print (as migsflores tweeted it: “Print will still be the preferred source of information of major decision-makers and students”)—and all David could write about was the slow migration to digital editions.
There is a term for this: confirmation bias.
Could he have written it any other way? Absolutely. Consider the following wrap-up written by Nikko Panti, of MadhouseMNL magazine:
“John Nery, editor and columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) and member of the academe, strongly said that ‘print is well and alive’ and that it has a ‘future that will excite [its readers].’ He also shared key points on how the print journalism industry, like the newspapers, is keeping up not only with their competition but also with other platforms. He capped off his talk by sharing PDI’s new venture that is ‘INQSnap.’”
Now that’s a report.
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Other facts David presented need to be set straight. While the Inquirer commissions surveys and studies from time to time, the data I presented on worldwide trends in the newspaper industry were not, as he wrote, “based on their company’s study.” How could it be, when in that part of my talk, I used six slides from the presentation Vincent Peyregne, CEO of WAN-IFRA, made in Bangkok last June? The slides themselves had the WAN-IFRA logo on the upper left hand side. (Also: Circulation growth in the Philippines was a modest 1 percent between 2008 and 2012, but advertising grew by 4 percent in the same period.)
The “downward spiral in several parts of the world” fact is only half true; to use the language of the borrowed slides itself, the decline in print circulation was happening in “mature markets” (and even then the decline was “easing”) while markets like Asia and Latin America, despite “slowing levels of growth,” were still growing. I even showed a slide with a grammatical error in its headline (which I made sure to point out), because it was WAN-IFRA’s: “However in Indonesia circulations is rising fast; whereas in Singapore they have declined.”
Like I said, exciting times ahead.
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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand
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