Consider the following headlines. “Why the Coalition’s NBN plan makes sense” (The Age), “Tony Abbott promises cheaper and faster alternative to NBN” (Herald Sun) “Coalition’s broadband plan reopens door to competition” (The Australian). One would reasonably conclude there is an overwhelmingly sensible consensus that the Coalition’s NBN plan is the best thing since sliced bread. So why all the #fraudband angst? Surely we can believe what we read? These are reputable and long-established publications, not some ragtag collection of wannabe commentators confined to 140 characters. Maybe a bit of navel gazing might be in order here.
The cognitive psychology literature is replete with material describing and exploring biases of intuition that create judgment errors. Nobel Prize-winning author and researcher Daniel Kahneman discusses the impact of some of the best-known of these biases in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. One of the biases he explores in depth is the concept of “framing”. The framing bias relates to the way that information is communicated — there is always an opportunity to apply either a negative or a positive frame to information.
Years of research consistently shows framing alters individual judgments by impacting on decisions made and impressions formed. A classic framing example is reporting the outcome of a football match where Team A played Team B. Two possible frames exist for reporting the outcome of the match: “Team A won” or “Team B lost”. Every time a football match is reported one of these possible frames is applied, and the frame selected influences how the resulting message is received. Considering last weekend’s football in Melbourne it is abundantly clear that “Melbourne lost”, rather than “Essendon won”. We know that because we have the “Demons in hell” (The Age) due to a “Shocker of an effort” (Herald Sun).
The reporting of public policy debate potentially has a more profound influence than the reporting of football result. So the real question might become something like: was that framing selected inadvertently or was it applied deliberately? An excellent example of framing is contained in a recent report in The Age highlighting the impact of the proposed Gonski reforms on Victoria’s independent schools. Independent Schools Victoria commissioned a report to analyse the veracity of federal Education Minister Peter Garrett’s statement that no school would be worse off in real terms. The resulting analysis was reported as follows:.
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“Almost 20 per cent of Victorian independent schools — including low-fee schools in struggling areas — would lose money next year under the Commonwealth’s funding reforms”
This is a classic negative framing example. The analysis could just as easily have been reported positively: over 80% of Victorian independent schools — including low-fee schools in struggling areas — would gain money next year under the Commonwealth’s funding reforms.
Did you see what I did there? Changed the way you think about Gonski and the issue of independent school funding, didn’t it? And this is text-based reporting; don’t get me started on framing bias provoked by visual imagery in TV news, that’s a whole other minefield. It’s always worth taking a moment to explicitly consider the framing applied when reading news reports. Taking the time to de-bias some framing effects might even give you a whole new outlook on life.