Availability bias: a guide for journalists

Diagram showing a large circle labelled 'All the information about a subject' and a smaller circle within that labelled 'The information that is easiest to recall'

I’ve written previously about the role that cognitive biases play in journalism, how to avoid confirmation bias, and anticipate criticism based on fallacies — but one cognitive bias I haven’t written about yet is the availability heuristic — or availability bias.

Availability bias is the tendency to reach for the most available reason, event, or tool, when confronted with a problem or decision.

The most obvious example of availability bias is the tendency to attribute blame — or causation — when a particular issue is highlighted. Common examples might include:

Large news events can also be ‘available’ in the same way:

  • Attributing problems in the health service to the coronavirus pandemic
  • Attributing the energy crisis to the Ukraine war

This doesn’t mean that those things are not causes of — or factors in causing — the problems in question — just that we naturally reach for those connections first, because they are the causes that can be brought to mind most quickly.

Those causes will differ from person to person because the factors that make something available to us also differ (and other cognitive biases play a role too: confirmation bias, naturally, as well as groupthink).

Recency, vividness, regularity, negativity and extremeness can all make information more available. This is why people avoid flying in the wake of an airplane crash: there will have been many car crashes at the same time, but those crashes won’t have been as vivid or extreme (and won’t have been given the same prominence in news reporting).

It is also why politicians might repeat the same explanations for a problem, even when those explanations have been debunked.

Systemic availability bias in journalism (and the bandwagon effect)

Flock of birds
Flock of birds image by Airwolfhound (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The availability heuristic is systemic in journalism — so much so that we have a word for it: topicality.

Topicality — the fact that a story relates to something readily available in other news right now — is seen as a good thing (the story must still add something new), and it does enable journalists to work persistently in a form of loose collective to uncover vital stories.

But it comes with risks: the most obvious is that we neglect equally important issues because they’re not ‘topical’.

Another is assuming that a story only relates to the most available theme. Examples might include:

  • Treating a flood as only a ‘global warming’ story when it might also be a ‘political incompetence’ story
  • Treating a story about asylum seekers as only an ‘immigration’ story when it might equally be approached as a story about war

A further risk is that we underplay — or ignore — stories that contradict the most easily available narrative.

This tendency has been described by Wired’s Aaron Zamost as ‘The Law of Narrative Gravity‘. Looking at a flush of stories about a ‘tech bubble’, he notes how stories during that period about a markdown in shares “generated 160 articles. The markup news cycle? Just five.”

Zamost mentions another cognitive bias in his article, too: the bandwagon effect (a form of groupthink): “where everyone processes and interprets information through a framework that is both easily digestible and broadly accepted.”

He illustrates this effect in stories about Uber in January 2017 when a protest at JFK Airport led to high demand for the taxi company, but the company turned off surge pricing:

“The facts were caught in the powerful gravitational pull of the “Uber is bad” narrative and were interpreted by users as strike-breaking profiteering, as opposed to what it probably was: a clumsy attempt to avoid profiting from the strike via surge pricing. Lyft, like Uber, also continued to pick up passengers at JFK during the strike, though there was no ensuing #DeleteLyft campaign.

What’s notable about Zamost’s account isn’t just the way that facts are interpreted to fit the most easily available narrative — but the blind spots that it creates elsewhere (in this case, the taxi app company Lyft). Presciently, Zamost’s other example is Elon Musk, who is characterised in 2017 as “a crazy futurist who wants to colonize Mars and build a vacuum-tube train, and who thinks humanity is living in a simulation.

“Musk is also a member of President Trump’s business advisory council, for which he’s received relatively little backlash. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, meanwhile, was forced to withdraw from the controversial group after days of bad press and public pressure.”

Availability bias in reporting methods

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. - Bernard Baruch
Abraham Maslow’s ‘Law of the instrument‘, paraphrased by Bernard Baruch, is known as ‘Baruch’s Law’

Another way that the availability bias shows itself is in the way that we choose to approach reporting stories.

This is best expressed in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘Law of the instrument‘, which observes that we tend to reach for familiar tools when solving problems, rather than the best tool.

So, for example, a journalist skilled in advanced search methods might try those methods first when trying to get to the bottom of a story — when a phonecall might have been more effective — while a reporter who has built a career on human sources might reach for those when an online search might answer her question in seconds.

(While researching this post I discovered the term “Birmingham screwdriver“, which refers to the practice of using an inappropriate tool for a job — in this case, a hammer to hit in a screw — because it’s the most available).

Of course this extends to the interviewees that we choose, too: the potential sources that spring to mind first are inevitably the ones that we have seen speaking about the issue in previous media reports, and on social media; and the ones that we’ve spoken to before.

Pausing to reflect on whether this is the best approach can make a significant difference on the quality of the resulting story.

There are more stories than ever about ‘biased journalism’

The rise in abuse of journalists on social media is, in part, an example of the availability heuristic in action: trolls and politicians have propagated a narrative of ‘fake news’ and the ‘biased reporter’, with two results: inconvenient truths are ‘blamed’ on these causes (“it’s just fake news”); and individual aspects of news reports are interpreted in the light of that bias.

For example, the fact that a reporter chose to speak to a particular source and not another is interpreted as evidence of bias, rather than, for example, the other source not being available or willing to speak.

Or the choice of one particular dataset is seen as cherry-picking, when in fact that was the most up-to-date dataset, or the only one with (for example) a regional breakdown.

Or the fact that a particular political party was the subject of a story, rather than the opposition, is seen as ‘targeting’ that party, rather than a reflection of the fact that one party is in power, and therefore actively affecting lives, while the other is not.

What’s striking, when viewed this way, is how little information is available to the audience to compete with this narrative of bias — but this is changing.

Checks and balances

What does all this mean for journalism? Well, firstly it’s important to emphasise that everyone has cognitive biases — journalists, sources, and audiences — and it’s not something that can be turned off or trained out.

So practices for addressing availability bias, and other cognitive biases such as groupthink and confirmation bias, are likely to take the form of ‘taking stock’ in a story.

  • When generating story ideas: challenge your assumptions and those of your colleagues, especially if an idea is topical. Look for blind spots outside of the ‘narrative gravity’ around the issue.
  • When researching a story: consider if the techniques or tools that you are using are the best for the job — or just those available. Speed is important — so there’s nothing wrong with using a ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ if it means you can hit the deadline; but sometimes you don’t have to.
  • When speaking to sources: look out for the availability heuristic being used, especially when blame or causation is attributed.
  • When using quotes: consider if you’re perpetuating the availability of a baseless narrative (a falsehood) and techniques for reporting those, such as the truth sandwich
  • Anticipate the narratives around journalism itself: people distrust journalists and journalism because of the easy availability of stories about poor reporting. We can do a better job of explaining how we chose the stories that we pursue, established the veracity of information, identified sources, chose questions, and combined the results.

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