Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Freakonomics reveals media bias... duh

On a recent Freakonomics episode they addressed the question of media bias. They cited a study that attempted to empirically determine a political leaning on the part of 20 major media outlets, and in the end that study concluded that relative to the public (which tends to be more conservative) the papers were closer to being liberal; that is, they were somewhat to the (using the common mode of directional reference) left of the middle. They weren't all the way over, but certainly more liberal than would be representative of the public. However, relative to the way of judging Democratic politicians in the same way, the media was less liberal than those elected with a "(D)" next to their name. The man behind the study concluded that the media tends to pull some of the public more to the center, and thus the reason the public tends to vote more down the middle.

Of course, the man behind this study was one who considers himself to the right of the public, so make of that what you will.

However, as to why the media outlets were generally leaning more liberally in their content, in the end the conclusion was that it wasn't so much that the slant stemmed from an agenda by those in the newsroom or by those owning the outlets but from the leanings of the people who consumed the content of the outlet. In short, the media outlets are in the business of selling papers and drawing viewers, and give those people what they want. It is a business after all.

As to how to make the media outlets be more conservative, the opinion of the man behind the aforementioned study (Tim Groseclose) and Ann Coulter was for the more liberal-leaning ones to hire more conservatives for their staffs, to "break the cocoon" of the liberal editorial stance, where the direction stems from an absence of knowing someone of true conservative beliefs.

Of course, a discussion with the editor of the editorial page of the New York Times reminded everyone that in earlier centuries there was an obvious bias in newspapers (back in the 19th century the Times was largely a Republican newspaper).

But at the end of the episode the host could only say that the question of media bias is an argument that likely never will be resolved, but that's likely because we all tend to adjust our beliefs to fit in with a side but (quoting psychologist Danny Kahneman) we are "blind to our blindness"; we notice others' biases without acknowledging our own. We still thrive on tribalism, on us-and-them partisanism, which is great when it comes to following sports but perhaps isn't best applied to judging the media.

Of course, I suppose it's silly to think there could be no bias; any person is going to have an inclination or preference or belief that favors (even if only slightly) one position over another, and to expect that it could be completely suppressed is probably at best a fiction that we pretend is true. Impartiality is likely only ostensible under the best of circumstances; it's perhaps better to think not in terms of unbiased reporting but in terms of reporting that isn't blatantly biased.

It's only the reporting that aligns with one's outlook that makes it seem like there is no bias; it's because one already agrees that it doesn't seem like there's any room for interpreting some slant.

Objective reality is a myth, but it's out favorite.


  1. When I was in journalism school, most of my classmates were liberal ideologues with an axe to grind. They wanted to use the media as a mouthpiece, a bully pulpit, with which to shout their misbegotten beliefs. Those classmates who aren't still waiting tables are now the liberal ideologues in the media. And they wonder why people are canceling their newspaper subscriptions and turning off the television. Most of the American public are not liberals, and they're tired of the media's abuse and hate.

  2. Most of the American public isn't anything, and as for media abuse and hate, the only abuses are those to journalistic integrity, and as for hate, I hardly think the 'liberal' media has some kind of lock on this, or is even responsible for the majority of it.


So, what do you think?