Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Media Bias - You keep saying that but I don't think it means what you think

Claims of media bias and protestations about “liberal media bias” are old hat at this point. Politicians from across the political spectrum routinely fall back to the idea that their position would be more broadly accepted but for “media bias.”

Leaving aside semantical debates about what “bias” is or what “liberal” or “conservative” actually mean, whining about media bias is common amongst most politicos and ideologues, regardless of their political leanings.  Generally when claims of biased reporting are made, what the claimants actually mean is that media outlet in question is intentionally distorting the truth, in order to advance some “agenda.”  

In actuality, when claims of bias are made, what is generally occurring is that someone’s personal political bias is being challenged.

There are  dozens of different kinds of biases, from memory bias and anchoring bias to confirmation bias and familiarity bias. Humans are simply not particularly good at acting without some kind bias.  So yes, the media, being made up of fallible humans, is biased.

One of the most common and persistent forms of bias is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms one’s existing worldview, while simultaneously ignoring information that challenges it.

All humans perceive the world through these biases, or lenses. Individuals acquire over the years, from their parents, friends, and communities, a system of beliefs, or a collection of biases, that anthropologists call “worldview.”

A worldview consists of all the personal truths, political truths, and beliefs that one has and uses to understand one’s place and function in the the world.

Worldviews, unsurprisingly, differ from person to person, are heritable, and have enough flexibility and overlap to allow for grouping. Hence nationalism and the partisan divide in this country between “liberals” and “conservatives.”

The Commuters resident Tea Party Conservative, Dale Hummel, recently published a piece on media bias in which he lamented the current state of political discourse in this country and made the bold claim that, “The lack of reporting on the Benghazi scandal, Fast and Furious, voter fraud, The Secret Service prostitution scandal, Solyndra, the lack of positive Tea Party and Second Amendment coverage are clear signs that most of the media have a clear bias and far from real journalism.”

Rather than being a series of examples of blatant media bias, this is an excellent example of ideology and confirmation bias, leading one to the spurious conclusion that most media is liberally biased.

The easiest way to illustrate this bias is with one of Dale’s claims: the lack of positive Tea Party and Second Amendment coverage being clear signs of bias and shoddy journalism.

This claim rests on two testable assumptions. First, that the preponderance of news media coverage concerning the Tea Party and the second amendment is “negative,” and second, that the preponderance of news media, in general, espoused said view. This is demonstrably untrue.

According to reports at Mediaite on  Nielsen, a television ratings company, media research, “FNC ranked fifth in all of cable during January, behind only ESPN, USA, History and TBS (CNN and MSNBC ranked 23rd and 27th respectively).” The rest of the news networks don’t even place in the top 100 networks watched.

Simply put, Fox’s News coverage is, by definition, the mainstream coverage, as the most individuals who watch cable news watch it on a Fox network.

Given that Fox aggressively promoted Tea Party events, and even let one of their hosts, Glenn Beck, lead a Tea Party event, it is hard to accept the premise that some kind of “liberal media bias” has been occluding the Tea Parties true virtues.  

Dale’s claim perfectly illustrates confirmation bias; for him, and many other Tea Partiers, that their own media outlets are dominant doesn’t affect their reasoning. To them, “the media” is against them, against their beliefs, and are biased.

Rather than being an oppressed minority, the Tea Party has received a tremendous amount of coverage, in no small part because of the National Tea Party patriots relationship with FNC.

They received so much coverage, that despite being a particularly small minority (50% of the Republican party at it’s height), they were able to derail the national conversation about the economy onto whether or not Barack Obama was a citizen.

If there were some kind of systemic liberal media bias it seems that their claims about his heritage would never have seen the light of day.

Dale’s further claims, about a lack of reporting on Benghazi and Solyndra are also examples of confirmation bias. One can quite easily find several articles on the NYT and WaPo, so called liberal institutions, lambasting the administration for their flat-footed response to the Libyan attacks. This alone undermines his entire argument about systemic liberal bias.

One can also find articles, from several different news sources, detailing how Solyndra was a poor investment choice. In fact, every single example that Dale points to as being an example of shoddy journalism, is merely an example of a news agency not agreeing with Dale’s political positions on specific issues.

Solyndra for example - yes, it was a bad investment, but it was an investment made along with several other investments, of which most have returned profits to the administration. It begs the question of why some insist on focusing on just one of the high risk investments, instead of looking at the total package of investments made.

The point here is that there is more than one way of viewing a story. One view may be that government was engaged in crony capitalism to enrich political allies, another view is that the administration was engaged in something called “venture capitalism,” a notoriously high risk/reward investment strategy.

That the bulk of the investments made by the administration in the green energy have panned out doesn’t seem to matter to the Tea Party. All that seems to matter is that one out of dozens failed.

The Fast and the Furious example is yet another story that has more than one view. Simply not believing in the Tea Party version is not an example of intentional bias, but rather is an example of differing political viewpoints.

It is completely possible, even reasonable, that the attempt by the Justice Department to curtail cartel purchases of firearms through sting operations, as are done in cities across the nation, was merely mishandled instead of being some kind of conspiracy.

All of which isn’t to say that explicit media bias doesn’t exist, but rather that most bias is of the incompetent or implicit kind, rather than the nefarious kind.

In fact, just this week Jon Stewart, a card carrying member of the “liberal elite”, took Obama to task over the IRS scandal and the DOJ appropriating AP phone logs. Stewart could have whitewashed, or even ignored these events, but instead he treated them just as he treats all political shenanigans, with wit and sarcasm. His bias towards using comedy as a means for illustration was in full view, but what wasn’t in view was some kind of political bias or secret agenda to support the president.

When individuals watch ostensibly partisan sources like Fox or MSNBC, according to research by FDU political scientist Dan Cassino, results show “Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience. This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them.”

Basically, if you are mostly watching, listening, or reading from ostensibly partisan outlets, everything else is going to be appear to be biased. This “ideological anchoring” is what causes individuals to believe that there is widespread media bias, when in point of fact what there is, is, widespread differences of political opinion amongst the media.