Would you rather receive information that corrects a misconception, or would you prefer to be told that you’re right? That is the choice millions of us face every day. On the surface, it seems obvious that we would choose accurate information. After all, we rely on the facts to make informed decisions on issues ranging from the personal to the political—from whether we wear a mask around others to voting on public policy. Yet, given the need for the truth in our everyday lives, why are so many Americans so dangerously misinformed at a time when we have access to more information than ever before?
Perhaps one reason for this is because it hurts to find out we were wrong—and not just our pride. Being proven wrong activates the same neural pathways as physical pain. Knowing this, it is no wonder that humans are prone to confirmation bias and tend to seek out information that echoes our own ideas. As Liliana Mason demonstrates in her book Uncivil Agreement, these tendencies are exacerbated when group membership comes into play, such as in US politics where identifying as a Republican or Democrat has become an integral characteristic of many individuals’ identity. Once someone establishes a partisan position on an issue, defending this idea becomes wrapped up in their identity and self-esteem. This is only worsened in an ideologically polarized media landscape where it is easy to avoid any information that conflicts with one’s existing beliefs.
The flood of digital misinformation and disinformation, presented alongside validated news, is certainly a part of this issue. However, at the core of this is the question of why we watch the news and what we hope to gain from it, whether it’s information, confirmation of our own ideas, entertainment, or some combination thereof. To answer this question, I would argue that as consumers of news, we need to reflect on why we are watching the news in the first place.
Examining our own personal epistemology – that is, how we know what we know – is central to answering this question in the midst of what many have described as an epistemic crisis in which false narratives have permeated public discourse. As one piece of personal epistemology, epistemic aims center on how we intend to use information. Epistemic aims are particularly relevant to issues that may be tied to political or group identities. In these situations, our aims may drive us to seek out the information that best supports our position rather than the best information, period.
For instance, consider two people who are reading about COVID transmission rates in their area. One is trying to find out how safe it is for their elderly mother to go to her painting class. The other is looking for information to support their politically influenced belief that COVID is no worse than the seasonal flu. These differing epistemic aims will influence the strategies they use to approach and process information and the criteria they set in determining what information meets our needs.
In the former situation, a person might read various sources, consider the credibility of the information and how it was produced, and then synthesize the most accurate information possible to make the best decision for their loved one’s safety. Thus, the epistemic aim to obtain accurate information shapes their criteria (e.g., credible, reliably produced information) and strategies (e.g., searching for and evaluating a variety of sources).
In the latter situation, if someone’s aim is solely to support their own argument that COVID is no worse than the flu, they may settle for the first piece of information that meets this aim. Rather than valuing accuracy, the reader may be more tempted to cherry-pick a source. Again, the reader’s aims influence the criteria (e.g., content supports argument) and strategies (e.g., targeted search for a single source), this time the detriment of accuracy.
While these scenarios may present a clear-cut contrast between epistemic and non-epistemic aims, these same considerations apply to each of us when we consume the news. In a market-driven news industry, media outlets are interested in engaging us, whether through entertaining debate or partisan pandering. If our aim is to be informed, as news consumers, we need to continually question what we are gaining from the news and whether it meets our aims.
Not long ago, my colleagues and I observed a series of lessons on news media literacy in a high school social studies class. In a particular lesson, the teacher demonstrated for his ninth-grade class how to differentiate between facts and opinions in an article. As he discussed these skills with his students, he asked them, “Do you know somebody who may be completely wrong, but you present them with the facts, and it doesn’t change their mind at all?” The teacher told his students, it’s all about mindset—you have to be willing to reevaluate your beliefs. After the discussion was over and students settled in to tackle their assignment, one student raised his hand and asked, “if high schoolers can exercise this kind of critical thinking, why can’t grown-ups and professionals do it? Are they not able, or are they just not willing?”
That is certainly the question of the day. In this media environment, people must learn the critical thinking skills to differentiate between fact and opinion, coordinate claims, and evidence, and evaluate sources. Along with these skills, we need the dispositions to be fair-minded, unbiased, and objective in seeking accurate information from various sources. Reflecting on our own epistemic aims—whether we are consuming news to become informed, bolster our own identity, or be entertained—helps us form more productive media habits and provides a foundation for fairly applying critical thinking skills.
The good news is that these dispositions and skills can be taught and align with social studies standards and educational frameworks, and fortunately, some educators are teaching young people the value of objectively seeking the truth. For the rest of us who may have missed those lessons in school, it will help us to remember that the role of the media is to inform citizens in a democracy; it is up to us to be mindful and engage with and support news outlets that serve this purpose.