Cooking up Controversy: How Psychology Can Explain the Media’s Missteps

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Thursday, February 14, 2019


One all-boys Catholic school, one Native American elder, some dashes of MAGA hats, a scoop of social media outrage, and zero apologies: this was the recipe that whipped up the Covington controversy. It dominated headlines days after a video went viral depicting what members of the Indigenous Peoples March alleged were students from Covington Catholic High School surrounding and mocking Native American elder Nathan Phillips. Only when evidence boiled to the surface that exonerated the Covington students could we ask how the American media made such a piping-hot mess. The answer is one, simple ingredient that psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

In psychology, assuming another’s negative character traits or intentions instead of using other potentially positive factors to explain behavior is called the fundamental attribution error. This phenomenon explains the media’s reaction to the Covington high school students. Like an infomercial for a food processor, the blue check-marks sliced, diced, beat, and pureed the Covington kids. They assumed hatred and racism as the motive, but when the cloche was removed, Nathan Phillips’ story was discredited by video evidence, which also depicted black-Hebrew Israelites hurling racial slurs towards Covington students. It was, in fact, not a deliberate act of racism and hatred on the part of the Covington students.

Assumptions of motives often manifest as labels. Defenders of life are sexists. Advocates of law and order are racists. Believers in American exceptionalism are white supremacists. People with religious convictions are homophobes. Proponents of free markets are greedy capitalists. Supporters of the Second Amendment are violent murderers. Supporters of Trump are all of the above. The media’s assumptions made the Covington kids out to be immature, privileged white supremacists.

The Covington controversy is a perfect example of this phenomenon because, without any dialogue with the Covington students, Nathan Phillips and the media immediately assumed the worst intentions from these teens because of their political affiliations. All the press needed to justify their attacks were the red hats atop some of the student’s heads.

When it became clear the media served up disgrace rather than a delicacy, the media hardly apologized. After every one of Phillips’ claims was debunked, The Washington Post’s only correction on the original story read, “earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips said he served in the U.S. Marines but was never deployed to Vietnam.” The Post went on to say the story was “complicated,” predictably peddled the “Republicans pounce” narrative, and continued to publish opinions shaming the Covington kids.

Ramifications from the fundamental attribution error aren’t confined to Covington. In early 2018, a teen was cursed out, had a drink poured on him, and had his MAGA hat stolen by an enraged millennial. Later that year, eleven-year-old Joshua Trump (of no relation to the current president and is now famous for catching some z’s at the State of the Union) was beaten and bullied on the bus just for sharing the president’s last name. The torment got so intense that his mother decided to change his name registered with his school in Delaware.

The FAE’s consequences go far beyond bad media coverage. It strains relationships, friendships, and partnerships. Psychologists think the FAE was an evolutionary tool for survival, now ingrained in human nature, but it’s not irresistible or unavoidable. The whole premise of being a civilized person is taking our most innate, brutish instincts and curbing them for the sake of leading a moral life and living peacefully with others. So before you assign malevolent intentions and propagate an unsubstantiated narrative to justify your agenda like the media, take a breath and listen before jumping to a conclusion.

Bradley Devlin is a student at the University of California Berkeley studying Political Economics and serves as the President of the Berkeley College Republicans.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Bradley Devlin

University of California, Berkeley

Bradley Devlin is a student at the University of California Berkeley studying Political Economics and serves as the President of the Berkeley College Republicans.

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