Anchoring in the past, tweeting from the present: Cognitive bias in journalists’ word choices

This study examines journalists’ language in their reporting and what their word choices reveal about their cognitive mindsets. Reporters on the campaign trail often cannot afford to engage in systematic information processing as they distill complex political situations under deadline pressures. Twitter’s emphasis on speed and informal cultural milieu can further lead journalists to rely on heuristics and emotions. Drawing upon insights from theories of the mind, memory, and language, this study explores how cognitive biases are embodied in journalistic work across different media. The researchers built a large-scale dataset of text corpora that consisted of more than 220,000 news articles, broadcast transcripts, and tweets generated over a year by 73 campaign reporters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Leveraging this unique dataset of journalistic outputs from a campaign season, the researchers conducted automated text analyses. Results suggest that heuristics and intuitive thinking played a significant role in the generation of content on Twitter. Journalists infused their tweets with more emotion, compared to when they appeared in traditional media such as newspapers and broadcasts. Journalists’ tweets contained fewer words related to analytical and long-term thinking than their writing. Journalists also used informal language in their tweets to connect with their audiences in more personal and casual manners. Across all media examined in the study, journalists described the current race by drawing upon their experience of covering prior presidential elections, a form of anchoring heuristic. This study extends the use of cognitive biases in politics to a new realm, reporting, and shows how journalists’ use of language on the campaign trail reflects cognitive biases that arise when individuals make decisions under time pressure and uncertainty.

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Lee J, Hamilton JT (2022) Anchoring in the past, tweeting from the present: Cognitive bias in journalists’ word choices. PLoS ONE 17(3): e0263730.