Analysis and the Bias of Proximity
Updated: Jul 24
We are most affected by people, events, and other aspects of our world that are closest to us. It’s an important consideration when reading news accounts, examining data, and processing information. That is why, while it’s important to hear from sources closest to events, analysts should maintain some distance by placing them in broader contexts.
For example, news stories of this year's scorching summer and choking smoke suggest that all of North America is in crisis. Yet, in the Northern Rockies where I live, the weather this Spring and Summer were cooler, wetter, and freer of smoke than in recent years. By contrast, in 2020, Colorado and the Northern Rockies experienced one of the worst fire seasons in recorded history. Consider the video that I produced in 2020, when ‘our world’ was on fire. The house, front and back yards, and dogs are mine. The environment was so dark that landscape lights were sometimes on at noon. I took most of the images in the video from home and nearby trails, where I was almost caught a few times by clouds of smoke and particulates. They looked like modern versions of Biblical pestilence.
The fires made the national news, but headlines remained focused on Covid, which had disproportionally affected New York City. National, regional, and local news coverage is influenced by where broadcasters, reporters, editors, and publishers live, so events in cities like New York, Washington, and Chicago frequently receive more attention – proximity bias at work. The world, however, includes vast distances and places outside the largest population centers.
Implications? Competent analysts actively keep news biases in check by contextualizing and benchmarking reports against broader views and frames of reference. This is a point that I repeatedly make during training and presentations. It’s not easy, of course, but it is indispensable to providing decision-makers with the information and insights they need to make the best informed, most objective decisions possible.