Sunday, May 21, 2006

Further Reflections on Media Bias

I should clarify what I said yesterday to make clear that I believe the mainstream media do have bias -- indeed, many biases. I simply do not believe it is anything like the simple ideological bias many people allege. I believe that the following biases exist in the mainstream (US) media:

(1) A U.S. Bias: Most Americans, including mainstream media, are not interested in what goes on beyond their borders. American news tends not to report on events in other countries, or to report very superficially, unless the U.S. government has directed their attention to another country, or something very sensational (like an earthquake or massacre) has happened.

(2) A Bad New Bias: People sometimes complain that all they hear is bad news, but this is in the nature of news. Does anyone want to hear about all the cars that didn't get into accident and all the people who weren't crime victims today?

(3) A "Man Bites Dog" Bias: We've all heard the addage that it is not news when a dog bites a man but it is news when a man bites a dog. This creates an abnormal slanting of the news that journalists do not often acknowledge. If we hear about every time a man bites a dog and nothing about most dogs biting men, we end up getting a very distorted view of the frequency of those events. People end up keeping their dogs locked up in the house to protect them from those deranged, bite-happy men out there, while scarcely giving a thought of the risk from dogs. This could explain why there is such fear and anxiety over school shootings when really there are any number of greater dangers to children, and why so many people are in a tizzy over bird flu and think nothing of more common diseases.

(4) A Short Attention Span: Events happen that briefly make the news and become stale within a few days. I used to call this the November Rule. The biggest story of the year would take place in November and would be so exciting we would still be hearing about it at the end of the year. Nothing else stayed in the news so long.

(5) A Washington Bias (or a horse race mentality): We hear a great deal about presidential contenders and what they are doing, or about the President's trip overseas. Debates over proposed laws tend to be addressed in terms of whose political career they enhance or harm, rather than on how they impact ordinary people. Presidential campaigns are addressed in terms of campaign strategy and who is going negative rather than what they are actually proposing. (Granted what they propose is usually as little as possible, all carefully polls tested and honed in focus groups).

(6) A Seize-the-Initiative Bias: Whoever gets the media's attention first has a huge head start, and all others are left playing catchup. A classic example of this is in all those studies we hear about that walnut oil or fish oil or whatever is the key to health and longevity. Questioning and qualification follow much later and are drowned out in the hoopla. This type of bias worked in George Bush's favor when he took the initiative in seeking war in Iraq; it works against him when leakers expose whatever he is up to.

(7) A Sensationalist Bias: Not only do sensational stories sell best, but often the first account of a story, based more on rumor than fact, tends to magnify the event and the more mundane truth only later emerges. Wild rumors about violence in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina are an obvious recent example.

(8) Finally, and closely related to all of the above, superficiality. Treatment of events in foreign countries or outside the beltway tend to be superficial, while inside-the-beltway, electoral politics stories are only superficially less superficial, giving in-depth discussion of political maneuvers but little analysis of their policy consequences. A short attention span is simply another sign of a lack of interest in in-depth coverage. So, too, do sensational and man-bites-dog stories. (Rare events are less likely to have overall social significance than common ones precisely because they are rare events rather than a common pattern). And the advantage that goes to whoever talks first shows a lack of serious, in-depth investigation and a willingness simply to report what one is told.

Interestingly enough, all these biases are particularly strong in the mainstream media when seeking to be objective. Being objective tends to be seen as simply reporting an event and quoting conflicting opinions on what it means, rather than doing in-depth investigation. Serious, in-depth stories about real but non-glamorous societal issues, with plenty of follow up invariably treat a subject too large to be easily covered. Such stories are more likely to appear in a quality advocacy publication or, if they appear in mainstream media, to make no pretense of being unbiased.

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