Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Media Bias

Last night, I read the article. “I Agree With You, Completely” from Jack Shafer on Slate.com. Slater’s article discusses what he called “a math-heavy paper” called “Media Bias and Reputation,” written by two economists, Matthew Gentzko and Jesse M. Shapiro.

One of the findings that the pair reported was that if you own a news outlet (or, I assume, a blog), and you want your audience to be objective, you will tell your what they want (expect) to hear. If you should tell your audience something that they do not already believe, they will be more likely to attribute your claims to your lack of objectivity than to their own bias. In short, media acquire a reputation for ‘objectivity’ by slanting news stories so that they conform to their audience’s preconceptions.

Slater uses this model to explain the success of Fox News. Fox slanted its reporting to reflect the bias of older, more conservative Americans. By telling conservatives what they want to hear, Fox News acquired a reputation for being “fair and balanced” by those viewers. The model predicts that if Fox News were to deviate from its conservative broadcasting, then its audience would be more inclined to see this as "liberal bias" than as objectivity.

In short, objectivity will tend to bring charges of bias, whereas bias will tend to bring accolades for objectivity.

The model is actually more complex than this, with additional considerations. However, these points are relevant enough for this discussion.

Just a few days before this, I read a different article on Slate.com called, “The Twilight of Objectivity.” Its author, Michael Kinsley, used the case of CNN anchor Lou Dobbs to illustrate how opinionated journalism draws a larger audience (and larger ratings) than traditional journalism. Lou Dobbs took a strong position on issues relevant to immigration and, since then, his ratings have gone up significantly.

This suggests that viewers and readers are mostly interested in tuning in to somebody who can rant the way that they (the viewer) would rant if only the viewer had a microphone and stage upon which to speak. They do not tune in to understand and learn about an issue. They tune in to see how their team is doing.

On the liberal side, I think that the same can be said about MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. He is gaining an audience among liberal viewers, with his popularity growing to a large degree because he challenges the "conservative bias" of Fox News in general - and Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly in specific.

These reports relate to another article that I wrote in January in a blog called, “Politically Closed Minds.” In that blog entry I wrote about an article that showed that Republican and Democratic partisans alike are prone to blind themselves to the contradictions and inconsistencies uttered by their party’s candidates. Test subjects do a good job identifying when an opposing candidate is inconsistent or contradicts himself, but cannot see similar contradictions and inconsistencies in the words of their party’s candidate.

All of this research is starting to give me a clue on how I can become a successful blogger with a large body of readers. All I need to do (besides get an editor) is to tell my readers what they want to hear – confirming whatever beliefs they had when the come onto this site. I also have to do this in an entertaining manner, no doubt. If I am successful, I will acquire a loyal following of readers who would not be able to see the contradictions and inconsistencies in my statements even if there were any.

I do not think that this would constitute a morally responsible way to read or to write about the subjects that I like to cover in this blog. I would hope that the readers of this blog would have the moral character to give my critics a fair hearing.

On the issue of “objectivity” as it is typically defined, I have always had difficulty seeing it as a virtue. I am talking about the type of "objectivity" that says that one ought to present both sides of a debate without taking sides, as if either side could actually be right. The objective writer then lets the reader make up his or her own mind.

I see "objectivity" in this sense as being dishonest. It presents a case as if both sides are equally plausible. “Objectivity” would require presenting a statement about the shape of the earth (round) in such a way that one does not actually take a position against those who deny the earth is round. It would require writing in such a way that it would make no presumptions against the theory that the earth is the center of the universe. An “objective’ author is supposed to act as if “intelligent design” is a reasonable alternative to Darwinian evolution, or that killing apostates might actually be a morally sensible position to take.

Writing so as to say, “these two propositions are to be considered equal,” when there is no reason to consider them equal is a lie. If it is the case that the preponderance of evidence is against the idea that the earth is flat or that it is at the center of the universe, then the truly objective (honest) writer should report this fact.

I sometimes think that the concept of “objectivity” was invented by people with poor arguments as a way of arguing that others pretend that their position has more strength than it actually has. “If you point out my false assumptions and blatantly invalid reasoning, then you are not being objective,” is an effective way to hide false assumptions and invalid reasoning.

In place of objectivity, I would like to substitute honesty. “Has the author presented the case on each side of the issue accurately?” It may well be the case that “accuracy” in this case simply supports the conclusion, “Those people are wrong.” The people who say that the earth is flat are wrong. There is nothing wrong with saying that.

Now, writers make mistakes. As one of my readers recently pointed out, I make mistakes. Writers will make claims that certain things are true when they are not. Some of them will be examples of deliberate deception. Others will be examples of carelessness. Still other examples will be innocent mistakes. Yet, the existence of these deviations from a norm does not argue against striving for the norm – striving for accuracy.

Here, once again, we need to return to the studies that I cited above. They say that an individual may do a good job in identifying the mistakes made by a partisan writer for “the other side,” whatever side that is. At the same time, they tend to blind themselves to the contradictions and inconsistencies to the writers working on the author’s own side. If you find yourself agreeing with somebody, this does not mean that he is right. In fact, it means that you should not trust yourself to determine whether he or she is right. You may be blinding yourself to the contradictions and inconsistencies carried within his argument.

All of this argues in favor of being a bit skeptical of one’s own beliefs. And that hearing or reading somebody who agrees with you is poor evidence that you are right. It argues in favor of recognizing the possibility of error and listening well to critics.

Strangely, people blame the media for media bias. Ultimately, it seems, the problem does not come from the media, but from us. We are too quick to grant the label of “objective” to those who have merely demonstrated the capacity to say what we want to believe, and to deny objectivity based on nothing more than the fact that the speaker or writer does not share our opinions.

Rational and responsible thought requires a bit more effort than that.


Mark said...

"All I need to do (besides get an editor) is to tell my readers what they want to hear – confirming whatever beliefs they had when the come onto this site."

This assumes you have an economic interest in this blog. I see no ads so I don't think you do - or is this a way of publicizing your book?

Also, my history of the press is rough, but I recall that newspapers before television were quite a bit more biased. The idea of "objectivity" would never have come up. So it was up to the readers to hear the "entertaining rants" on boths sides of an issue and come to their own conclusion.

Could it be that "objective media" is a myth? If enough people believe there is an objective media, then a biased media would have lots of freedom to do and say what they want - unchecked.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I think that this touches on an element of 'opinion journalism' that I wrote about in an earlier blog entry.

The most popular form of broadcast is sports. It has been discovered that turning a news broadcast into something like a sporting event boosts ratings. The news organization gets a representative from each of the two "teams" to come onto the show. There, the two do battle by seeing who can deliver the most telling one-liners and insults. Partisan viewers are then encouraged to root for their team's representative.