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Jack Shafer at Slate reports on a new study that delves into the reasons journalism gets slanted in the American market. The study explains that news which has quick resolution and immediate accountablility get more straightforward treatment, while those stories which take significant time for resolution -- tax policy, war, and so on -- have the most susceptibility to overt and institutional bias:
1) If a media outlet cares about its reputation for accuracy, it will be reluctant to report anything that counters the audiences' existing beliefs because such stories will tend to erode the company's standing. Newspapers and news programs have a visible incentive to "distort information to make it conform with consumers' prior beliefs."
2) The media can't satisfy their audiences by merely reporting what their audience wants to hear. If alternative sources of information prove that a news organization has distorted the news, the organization will suffer a loss of reputation, and hence profit. The authors predict more bias in stories where the outcomes aren't realized for some time (foreign war reporting, for example) and less bias where the outcomes are immediately apparent (a weather forecast or a sports score). Indeed, almost nobody accuses the New York Times or Fox News Channel of slanting their weather reports.
3) Less bias occurs when competition produces a healthy tension between a news organization's desire to conform to audience expectations and maintaining its reputation.
The mechanism Shafer describes in the first paragraph has a basis in psychology. One of the dynamics at work in assessing information gathering in general on an individual basis is the constant re-evaluation of the messenger based on whether the data it delivers matches our worldview. When a trusted source brings us information that contradicts our own set of assumptions, it tends to increase the credibility of the new data while decreasing the trust level in that source. Whether the dynamic Shafer describes involves conscious effort on the part of the media outlets or is more of a normal but subconcious human response, its existence is hardly a surprise.
Points two and three follow from a competitive environment. In the recent past when almost everyone in the nation had ready access to only two news sources -- the local-newspaper monopoly and the lock-step reporting of the Big Three TV networks -- no one had to worry about news consumers discovering holes in the reporting which could undermine media credibility. Various developments have changed that, starting with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of AM radio talk shows, the advent of cable news, and the Internet. Suddenly, after a few decades of relative safety, the news media faced serious competition and a much more sophisticated audience. In the new market, the consumers gained the upper hand over a marketplace that has evolved much too slowly but has begun to catch up with reality.
Shafer, on the other hand, has always been ahead of this curve and includes some of his own observations of this phenomenon. He writes about the famous Daniel Okrent column in which he "admitted" that his New York Times was a liberal newspaper, an admission forced on the then-ombudsman once the Gray Lady had to compete not just within New York City on the streetcorners but with other major newspapers in the boundary-free Internet. This admission established credibility for Okrent in his position as reader representative, but it never would have come without the competition that the new environment presents.
Interestingly, Shafer notes that this dynamic only appears in the American media. For some reason, the British have avoided it altogether and instead have embraced obviously slanted national newspapers, with competition providing diversity through market choice rather than internal diversity within each market entrant. That springs from the long fantasy of the American media that it provides objective reporting to their consumers, a tradition that dictates more movement towards that goal than towards a British-style embrace of specific points of view. Even the New York Times fights against Okrent's characterization of the paper.
Whatever model gets embraced by the American media, the competition has made the news more honest and more diverse. Shafer makes sure that this point does not get lost.Sphere It View blog reactions
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