Why opinion journalists are sometimes bad at their job (including myself)
By Kent R. Kroeger (January 4, 2021)
Opinion journalists, such as movie critics, bring biases to every opinion they hold and complete objectivity is an ideal few, if any, attain.
The scientific literature on this trait common to all humans, not just opinion journalists, is vast and well-established. The lenses through which we interact with the world are multilayered and varied, each of us with our own unique configuration.
The science tells us we tend to overestimate our own knowledge while underestimating the knowledge of others (“Lake Wobegon effect”); we tend to believe an idea that has been repeated to us multiple times or is easy to understand, regardless of its actual veracity (“illusory truth effect”); we overestimate the importance recent information over historic information (“recency effect”); we offer our opinions to others that will be viewed more favorably by them and often suppress our unpopular opinions (“social desirability bias”); and perhaps the most dangerous bias of all: confirmation bias — our inclination to search for, process and remember information that confirms our preconceptions to the exclusion of information that might challenge them.
But nowhere are human biases more socially destructive than when opinion journalists project onto others the motivations for their personal opinions and actions. It is often called the illusion of transparency and it occurs when we overestimate our own ability to understand what drives someone else’s opinions and behaviors. [The other side of that same bias occurs when we overestimate the ability of others to know our own motivations.]
The illusion of transparency often leads to fundamental attribution errors in which the explanations for the opinions and behaviors of others is falsely reduced to psychological and personality-based factors (“racist,” “sexist,” “lazy,” “stupid,” etc.).
In combination with intergroup bias — which takes the illusion of transparency to the group level and causes members of a group to give preferential treatment to their own group, often leading to a group’s intellectual atrophy as they make it difficult for new ideas to be introduced into the group — this tendency to falsely infer the motives of others can create systematic, group-level misunderstandings, leading potentially to violent social conflicts.
Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matthew 7:1–3 KJV)
I know something of these biases as I engage in when I write, including in my last opinion essay about the unusual proportion of male movie critics that gave Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) a positive review (“Are movie critics journalists?”). Though having never met one of these male movie critics, I still felt comfortable attributing their positive reviews to WW84 as a product of being handpicked by WW84’s movie studio (Warner Bros.) for early access to the movie, along with their desire to “please their editors and audience” (a presumed manifestation of the social desirability bias) and other career motives.
Was I right? I offered little evidence beyond mere conjecture as to why the few early negative reviews for WW84 came almost entirely from female movie critics (I basically said liberal men are “useless cowards”). For that I am regretful. I can do better.
Yet, I still believe there was a clear bias among some movie critics in favor of WW84 for reasons unrelated to the actual quality of the movie. How is it possible that, out of the 19 male movie critics in Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top Critics” list who reviewed WW84 in the first two days of its Dec. 15th pre-release, not one gave WW84 a bad review. Not one.
If we assume the reviews were independent of one another and that the actual quality of WW84 warranted 80 percent positive reviews (an assumption purely for argument’s sake), then the probability that we’d get 19 consecutive positive reviews from the top male movie critics is a mere 1.4 percent ( = 0.8¹⁹). If we use WW84’s current Rotten Tomatoes score among all critics of 60 percent as our assumption, that probability goes to near zero.
I can only draw one conclusion: Early reviews by the top male critics were excessively positive for WW84.
As to why this happened, be my guest with your own theories and hypotheses. Do I think Warner Bros. paid for good WW84 reviews? That is the typical straw man argument Hollywood journalists like to use to discredit critics of entertainment journalism. I have no evidence of money changing hands between Warner Bros. and selected movie critics and I have never suggested as much.
Do I think editors, peer pressure, and even the general public mood weigh heavily on movie critic reviews? Absolutely, yes, and scientific evidence in other social contexts suggest this is likely the case.
Which is why when I read other journalists and movie critics suggest that negative WW84 reviews are motivated by deep-rooted sexism, I cry, “Foul!”
No, critics of “Wonder Woman 1984” are not sexist
In a recent article for Forbes, movie critics and screenwriter Mark Hughes concludes that much of the criticism of WW84, especially from male critics, is motivated by nothing less than sexism. He writes:
“Questions of the film’s tone and action sequences are frankly of little interest to me, since most of the same folks offering up those complaints were eager to praise the silliness of many other superhero films. One day it’s “these films take themselves too seriously,” and the next it’s “this film is silly and should take itself more seriously.” Wash, rinse, repeat as necessary (or as clicks and payday necessitate).
Likewise, when men helm films we see far more willingness to weigh “that which works” as more important than “that which doesn’t work,” and allow them room to come back later and impress us. A woman, though? Not so much, as Patty Jenkins has been personally insulted and condemned by voices declaring Wonder Woman 1984 an inexcusable offense to humanity. If you think I’m being hyperbolic about the accusations hurled against the film and its defenders, go look around social media and press coverage for 30 seconds, and then come back to finish this article…”
In other words, according to Hughes, we don’t have to be conscious of our deeply ingrained, latent sexism to be subject to its power. Merely disliking a movie directed by a woman proves its existence.
Let me start by noting that many of the male (and female) movie critics that did not like WW84, gave glowing reviews for director Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman movie in 2017. Chris Stuckmann is as good an example as any in the flaw of Hughes’ sexism charge: Stuckmann’s 2017 Wonder Woman review. His WW84 review.
Did Stuckmann’s latent sexism only kick-in after 2017? Of course not. The more likely explanation is that Stuckmann realizes Wonder Woman (2017) is a very good movie and WW84 is not.
But since Hughes is carelessly willing to suggest critics like Stuckmann are driven by subconscious sexist tendencies when they review movies by female directors, let me conjecture that Hughes had a much more powerful motivation for giving WW84 a good review.
Hughes is a screenwriter (as well as being a movie critic) and one of the well-known attributes of Hollywood culture is that directors, writers, and actors do not publicly like to piss on someone else’s work. It can be career suicide, particularly when that person directed one of the best movies of 2017 (Wonder Woman) and is widely admired within the industry. Even if sexism is alive and well in Hollywood (and I have no doubt that it is), by virtue alone of having helmed two great movies in her young career — Monster (2003) and Wonder Woman (2017) — Jenkins possesses real power by any Hollywood standard.
That Hughes liked WW84 is not surprising. I would have been stunned if Hughes hadn’t.
My complaint about Hughes’ recent Forbes article chastising the “harsher” critics of WW84 is not that Hughes thought WW84 was a good film. That Hughes appreciated the positive themes in WW84 enough to overlook the movie’s obvious flaws is truly OK. [My family, myself notwithstanding, loved the movie.] I’ve loved many movies that, objectively, were rather bad (Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man comes to mind).
My problem with Hughes (and, unfortunately, far too many writers and journalists at present) is that he throws around psychological theories and personal accusations without a shred of empirical evidence.
Hughes doesn’t know the motivations for why someone writes a critical review any more than I do.
But Hughes takes it one step farther. He implies there’s a dark, antisocial aspect to someone who doesn’t like WW84. He asks:
“Do you look at the world around you and decide we need LESS storytelling that appeals to our idealism and posits a world in which grace and mercy are transformative, in which people can look at the truth and make a choice in that moment to try to be better?”
No, Mr. Hughes, I do not think we need LESS storytelling that appeals to our idealism and better angels. But I believe we need MORE GOOD storytelling that does that. Unfortunately, in my opinion, WW84 does not meet that standard. Furthermore, when Hollywood and our entertainment industry does it poorly, I fear it risks generating higher levels of cynicism towards the very ideals you (and I) endorse.
As one of my government bosses once said as he scolded me, “Kent, good intentions don’t matter. I want results.”
I think that dictum applies to Hollywood movies too.
Send comments to: email@example.com