News reports and CIA Veteran Richards Heuer

By Toa Lohe (@Toamatapu) | 6 min read

Heuer has become a favorite on Myth Composer. His seminal work on the importance of CIA analysts understanding their own minds when working on intelligence analysis is useful for journalists today. Below are a few points he pointed out.

Purchase a copy here.

The World Doesn’t Revolve Around the United States

This is a very important reminder for journalists. Within the United States, we may believe that our country has a tremendous effect on others but that bias cannot influence every news report. “In estimating the influence of US policy on the actions of another government, [journalists] more often than not will be knowledgeable of US actions and what they  are intended to achieve, but in many instances they will be less well informed concerning the internal processes, political pressures, policy conflicts, and other influences on the decision of the target government.” Journalists need to be more aware of the other influences that affect a foreign government’s decision making. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to understand a foreign government and most journalists aren’t willing to put in the considerable work to learn about them. “In order to understand international  interactions, [journalists] must understand the situation as it appears to each of the opposing forces, and constantly shift back and forth from one perspective to the other as they try to fathom how each side interprets an ongoing series of interactions.” This is incredibly important because “once events have been perceived one way, there is a natural resistance to other perspectives.”

The First News Report is the Most Important and Detrimental

All breaking news stories tell only a fraction of the story and lack accurate information. The media may promise to update the viewer on new information but they have already presented a first impression. “Initial exposure to blurred or ambiguous stimuli interferes with accurate perception even after more and better information becomes available.” Heuer references a study that tested how much the first impression of a picture’s presentation had on test subjects. The picture alternated between being blurry and then clear to a number of participants. The study revealed “the greater the initial blur, the clearer the picture had to be before people could recognize it.” Those that had seen the picture for the first time blurry were always at a disadvantage. Others that had seen the picture clearly than blurry did not suffer from the same problem. This demonstrates that our first impressions of a story are incredibly devastating. And we will only recognize our own bias until “contradiction becomes so obvious that it forces itself upon our consciousness.” Journalists can break a story and update their readers on any new updates linked to the story, but they cannot dismiss the plain fact that “the early but incorrect impression tends to persist because the amount of information necessary to invalidate a hypothesis is considerably greater than the amount of information required to make an initial interpretation.”

Early, Intense Analysis of Current Events Helps No One

All readers naturally desire breaking news updates; “customer demand for interpretive analysis is greatest within two or three days after an event occurs.” That is what encourages the media “to come up with an almost instant diagnosis before sufficient hard information.” Since journalists can report on only bits and pieces of information, their own preconceptions about events from the past will inform their own point of view about what they report. Readers can be at fault for holding onto fragments of facts to inform their perspective but journalists cannot. And they need to be weary of their own initial analysis of an event because “once a [journalist] thinks he or she knows what is happening, this perception tends to resist change. New data received incrementally can be fit easily into an [journalist’s] previous image. This perceptual bias is reinforced by organizational pressures favoring consistent interpretation; once the [journalist] is committed in writing, both the [journalist] and the [media] have a vested interest in maintaining the original assessment.”

Explainer News is Terrible Because the World’s Random Phenomena Cannot be Simply Explained

The rise of explainer news is oversimplifying the complexity of the world. “The prevalence of the word ‘because’ in everyday language reflects the human tendency to seek to identify causes.” This is a bias in itself since “because” favors casual explanations. “One bias attributable to the search for coherence is a tendency to favor causal explanations. Coherence implies order, so people naturally arrange observations into regular patterns and relationships. If no pattern is apparent, our first thought is that we lack understanding, not that we are dealing with random phenomena that have no purpose or reason…[journalists and readers] resist the thought that outcomes may be determined by forces that interact in random, unpredictable ways. People generally do not accept the notion of chance or randomness.” The hope for a coherence and narrative does little to reveal the complexities of the actual story that needs to be written. But journalists carry on with their principle logic and use “dominant concepts or leading ideas…to postulate patterns of relationships” with the available facts. This encourages the journalist to use his or her “imagination” to tell an “organized” and “meaningful story.” Which may help journalists and readers understand the events occurring, but a story is inherently written from a point of view which is inclined to exclude particular details and other perspectives that should be considered.

More Information Does Not Necessarily Mean Better Conclusions

Journalists may delight in the ever amounting resources to access and people to talk to about events, but they must understand that they themselves will only use a minimum amount of information to write a story. “Once an experienced [journalist] has the minimum information necessary to make an informed judgment, obtaining additional information generally does not improve the accuracy of his or her estimates. Additional information does, however, lead the analyst to become more confident in the judgment, to the point of overconfidence.” Ultimately “[journalists] tend to favor certain types of explanations as more coherent than others” favoring their own particular bias.

Journalists can look out at the world and view new events as having much more sway over what they write. But they have to factor in their own mental model. “People’s mental models are simpler than they think, and the [journalist] is typically unaware not only of which variables should have the greatest influence, but also which variables actually are having the greatest influence.” Even the most experienced journalists can be faulted for having an imperfect understanding of the events that happen around the world. “Experienced analysts have an imperfect understanding of what information  they actually use in making judgments. They are unaware of the extent to which their judgments are determined by a few dominant factors, rather than by the systematic integration of all available information. Analysts actually use much less of the available information than they think they do.” Young and old need to recognize that their “judgments are based on a few critical variables rather than on the entire spectrum of evidence.” Many can state that their analysis is based off data, but it is their own conceptual approach to the data that needs to be reviewed.  

The Supposed Mosaic Theory Does Not Work

Journalists write articles with only bits and pieces of evidence. This stems from the “mosaic theory” that follows the procedure of (1) “small pieces of information are collected,” (2) then “put together like a mosaic or jigsaw puzzle,” (3) and creating “a clear picture of reality” (Heuer, Chapter 6). But that procedure doesn’t work since journalists aren’t putting the pieces together. Instead they “form a picture first and then select the pieces to fit.” Journalists need to admit to themselves and their readers that they “lack the time or access to evidence to go into details.” There needs to be a disclosure at the beginning of every article stating the journalist’s political leanings and opinion about an event to inform the reader their point of view. Using a well-known media brand to cloak themselves doesn’t keep them accountable.

What Readers Want

We don’t want up-to-date information. We want accurate information. This is especially true when reading about news involving foreign policy. Many journalists write the news using mirror-imaging, “that is, to assume that the other country’s leaders think like [Americans] do.” And the biggest one is journalists need to stop setting themselves apart from the readers as being able to be more objective. That isn’t possible since “objectivity  is  gained  by  making  assumptions explicit so that they may be examined and challenged, [and] not by vain efforts to eliminate them from analysis.” And readers want to watch and read politics to remain informed and make appropriate voting decisions at the ballot box, but the media cannot present opposing political views engaged in all-out war; “some  competition  between conflicting views is healthy and must be encouraged [but an] all-out political battle is counterproductive.”

Heuer outlines what we can ask for that will get through to elitist journalists:

  • Encourage products that clearly delineate their assumptions and chains of inference and that specify the degree and source of uncertainty involved in the conclusions.
  • Support analyses that periodically re-examine key problems from the  ground  up  in  order to avoid the pitfalls of the incremental approach.
  • Emphasize procedures that expose and elaborate alternative points of view.
  • Educate consumers about the limitations as well as the capabilities of analysis; define a set of realistic expectations as a standard against which to judge analytical performance

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