Media bias: it's all your fault

The mainstream media has been flogged like a peasant’s nag in a Dostoevsky novel by critics on both sides of the political divide. For those of us who drink the nectar of abject cynicism, the situation is as sweet as it could be. The left complains of media bias; the right complains of media bias; and both are convinced that the majority of our woes stem directly from that hideous old beast, the MSM, that refuses to pull.

While it is easy to assume that the slimy tentacles of Rupert Murdoch’s ideology or the latte stains of the Grey Lady are to blame, what if that isn’t the case?

The Economist (Nov. 1st – 7th, 2008; “Economics focus: A biased market”, p. 88) implies that We the People might be the maker of media bias. A 2005 study by S. Mullainathan and A. Shleifer suggests that readers want neither “fair” nor “balanced”; they want their beliefs confirmed by the news. Market principles are counterproductive to truth because media seeks profit, and it will print what sells. In an homogeneous market, then, there is good reason to slant coverage. Furthermore, slanting is easy. A rise of 0.2% in unemployment figures could headline as “Recession Fears Grow” or “Turnaround in Sight”, depending on how you want to look at it.

In 2007, M. Gentzkow and J. Shapiro took the idea further. First, they analyzed Congressional debates to identify phrases that were used disproportionately by Democrats or Republicans. They then analyzed more than 400 newspapers to determine how often newspapers used partisan language. With a measure of slant established, the authors next compared newspaper circulation with vote share in the 2004 presidential election and the likelihood of people within the market to contribute to political causes. Not surprisingly, they found that circulation did correspond to prevalent political views in a given zip code. Going one step further, they calculated what amount of slant would maximize newspaper profit in its market and compared that to the actual slant. The two slants showed a striking congruence.

Both studies concentrated on newspapers, but I would suspect that their findings would be amplified when applied to radio, television, and the internet. There may be only one newspaper directly serving a local market, whereas the consumer has nearly unlimited choice beyond print media. If your first instinct when checking the news is to visit The Huffington Post, then you’ve already made a choice about what news you want and how you want it. Furthermore, the editors of such a site have even fewer reasons than print editors to include differing views or to attempt unbiased coverage. The rapidity of the news cycle and the nature of the web-market almost certainly create a feedback loop that produces more and more slant with less and less exposure to differing opinions. Print media, which has fallen on the hardest of times, would then be likely to increase slant in an effort to compete with media that gives the consumer exactly what he wants…a political reflection.

Mullainathan and Shleifer found that a heterogeneous reader can obtain an unbiased version of the news; they did not suggest, as I will, that the heterogeneous reader is also likely to be an abject cynic. What else could you be if you have to cross mountains of slant to find something as simple as hard news? Whether you roll around in the mud by choice or not, you’re still dirty.

So is the dreaded MSM innocent? Is it all our fault for being so neurotic and insecure that we need our personal views confirmed in such a way that we can call them facts? Can we still blame our network of choice for ruining everything? If I accept responsibility, does that mean that I have to do something about it? Or, can I just keep blaming everything on all the politicians in Washington that I didn’t vote for?

Obviously, variations on the “chicken or the egg” motif are possible here, and neither study goes so far as to state that ownership ideology has no influence. These studies do, however, make interesting additions to the debate. And if nothing else, when someone starts bitching about media bias you can respond, “Whatever, it’s all your fault anyhow.” Still, I have to wonder: if you beat the nag to death, what will pull the cart?

Categories: Media/Entertainment

16 replies »

  1. Interestingly, in the Netherlands, where I was born and raised, we had tv stations if you will (like say a ‘Fox’ or ABC any of the three) and they were either Christian based, Catholic (cause we have that darn history with Philip V, can’t include catholics with the protestants now can we??), center or left based stations. The news is like the BBC, ‘neutral’..the rest, you know where they’re coming from. In the Netherlands, you have to be a ‘member’ of either of them and whomever has the most members, gets the most air time.. perfect! It’s a veritable smorgasbord and no one dominates, more perfect! So their air time, whether it’s tv or radio is all based on that. No surprises.
    Somehow I wished they’d be like that here. But then having to share the when Fox’s time was done, they’d be off the air for someone else to take their spot..people like to watch tv so they’d see their stuff we did have two channels so you’d have a choice which one to watch. Also, it’s not all politics for those stations either so I think diversity is much more needed here..instead of having big companies pay for your way on the air (the market/corporations who want to sell sell sell)..the people themselves would get to decide what would be on. And don’t tell me people can decide to watch tv or not because here, people are just much too addicted/used to having something on tv all the dulls the brain and ‘we’ need something to elevate it.
    ok, sorry, got a wee off track..[s]

    ps..bring back the fairness doctrine..that would help too..
    pps…I heard that if anyone wants to make a documentary for PBC..they accept money from corporations, but not unions… have you heard of that??

  2. Great piece, Lex. Good research, good writing. Thanks.

    But I disagree a bit. Note this line: “neither study goes so far as to state that ownership ideology has no influence.”

    At the moment, I’d argue, actually, have argued that media bias is driven by the desire of large institutional investors to maximize sharehold revenue. Track that backwards, and editorial decisions fall in line to that.

    Glad to have you on board here.

  3. This phenomenon is actually what brought me to S&R. As a guy who had voted Republican, I was searching out differing views and I found them here minus any yelling or screaming.

    Now that the Dem’s are in power I read FOXnews and Drudge report way more than I did in the past two years. I will keep coming back here as well as visiting MSBC, too. The trick is to know the bias of each one and consciously seek out people who diagree with you, taking it ALL with a grain of salt.

  4. Bob, I suspect you’ll find S&R transitioning to a less overtly partisan mode soon. Like most blogs (the vast majority of which came into being since Bush became President in 2000), we’re going to have some transition pains as we figure out what to do with ourselves, but there are a number of us who are more contrarian than partisan, and with the election over, that should be more apparent. In fact, I’ve noticed that myself already, and it’s been less than a week since the election.

    S&R has a few core principles, but blind fealty to the Democratic party or progressive values and opinions isn’t one of them.

  5. I have a strong commitment to progressive values. It’s just that my idea of what that term means doesn’t always mesh with more conventional definitions….

  6. Ingrid, i’d be real cool with just knowing the score and making my choices rather than having to sift and make value judgments on the news before i even start.

    Dr. Denny, thank you (and many of those to the S&R for giving me the opportunity). I would, personally, very much agree that the hunt for ever improving quarterly profit statements is the root of this evil. Private ownership, and its attendant ideological slant, is preferable to simply chasing dollars wherever they might lead. There’s principle in the former.

    Brian, you’re probably a heterogeneous reader which means that for you, the truth is out there…but only because you’re willing to hack your way through the fetid jungle of media bias.

    Dr. Slammy, thanks for that link…right up my alley.

    Bob, indeed, and i think Brian’s right about S&R because it seems that most here value thinking something through to a conclusion rather than reaching a conclusion and thinking of an argument that leads to their conclusion. Or principle over politics, and it’s a pretty heterogeneous place/crew.

    Ann, so are the media moguls…

  7. “. . . the hunt for ever improving quarterly profit statements is the root of this evil.”

    This I find to be the most prudent of all points. News has become infotainment, a word that had to be created to explain what was happening with information dissemination. Finding ways to “entertain” while “informing” because entertained people come back.

    But I think the major piece of this is missing from this study, and that would be the ‘why’ of this trend being so successful. That is, why do so many people not want truth, but want simple reinforcement of their current belief systems.

    In the interest of not bringing a dissertation to the table.. People are lazy (I think this to be a learned behavior more than anything, and it benefits the ruling elite for us to be that way so it’s reinforced). Thinking is hard (for the average Joe), so we make fun of those that do it while ironically needing them to actually fix the problems the average Joe creates.

    Media bias (saying whatever it takes to make a buck) is not limited to the media. Our entire society is based on the drive to get as much personal wealth as we can. We don’t care about quality of life, we care about quantity of stuff. I just can’t understand where that came from in such a large scale since America is one of the only major nations that seems to have gotten stuck in that rut while most other industrialized nations have moved past that.

    I think the biggest problem is that since so many people in this country don’t really care for knowledge or truth, how does what appears to be a minority elicit change in a beneficial manner? How do we wake up the fat lazy ignorant masses and get them interested in learning, knowing, thinking? It seems that if there’s no profit in it, we’re doomed to long term pain over short term fulfilling of hedons.

    Nice posting, Lex.

  8. Right. When we killed the public interest standard we destroyed any ability to think about the good of the culture. The only remaining logic is the next earnings report.

    The story of how this serves the long-term best interest of the society is one of my favorite bedtime fairytales.

  9. “The left complains of media bias; the right complains of media bias;”???

    Huh? It’s 2008 and if you honestly THINK the goal posts are still Murdoch and the NYTimes then you have missed the last 20 years.

    It’s a constructed mythology — it’s never been disputed or questioned as to those who own it, can write what they want regardless of bias or not. That has NEVER been the issue, nor should it be.

    The objectivity myth is entirely a ‘guild’ pretense for people who work for those corporations and wish to continue to work in that industry even if they have been tainted by corporate bias by OTHER employers. “If you worked for Hearst, you can’t work for me. He’s the competition”.

    Propaganda has no bias — claims of objectivity are simply to ensure that the corporatist state message that come down from the top are given airtime and the public is exposed to those narratives.
    It is not necessary for the public to believe it, it is merely necessary that the public is exposed to it. There is NO left wing/ right wing bias in the majority reporting regarding the border actions between Russia/Georgia.
    It’s a imperial bias.
    It was a conscious attempt by members of the various Anglo-American regimes and their media companies to make SURE that the public was exposed to constructed propaganda for the furtherance of global expansion and dominance. There is no objectivity in what happened. Ditto for Israel attack on Lebanon. Ditto for Iraq. Ditto for the pretext of the bail-out/further bank consolidation. The M$M exists at this stage to merely translate and clarify the propaganda statements of those engaged in the unthinkable and the illegal.

    Lex — it ain’t that complicated anymore. Educated people are turning off their media and getting their information from OTHER qualified educated people; NOT JOURNALISTS. Even engaging conversation with people, LIKE JOURNALISTS, simply exposes one to all manna of mythology, state spam, corporatist ideology and insanity.

    Let’s face it — it’s ONLY from objective journalists working in the media that one would be exposed to such nonsense as to whether Harry Potter books turn children into warlocks or whether Dr. Kelly committed suicide or whether the Russians shamelessly attacked the Georgians or whether Obama won a landslide.

    The facts on the ground just don’t support the media narrative anymore and that’s the bias. Stop bringing partisanship into your analysis — it doesn’t exist.

  10. Thanks, Savanster.

    empson7, i didn’t bring partisanship into it so much as noted that nobody’s happy with the “media” and everyone bitches and moans about it. But the studies that formed the basis of the piece in The Economist brought an interesting angle to the “debate” that i found worthy of sharing…and perhaps sparking debate.

    But your point about people not getting their “news” from the “media” was addressed in the post, and i maintain that the bias we see in traditional media is likely to be exaggerated in non-traditional forms because those forms can tailor their product for a niche in the market.

    Moreover, how much “news” is broken by these non-traditional forms of journalism? Most “news” sites on the internet are mostly repackaging of the work of traditional journalists…and then a great deal of opinion.

    And i noted that the studies noted that it was possible to get unbiased news, but the onus is on the reader…which is exactly what you said when you told me how off base i am.

    Finally, you’re barking up the wrong tree here, i don’t believe in objectivity in the first place.