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Understanding media bias
And why it's not worth stressing about
When I was a child, Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays were when my comics came. Things like The Hornet, Cor, Wizard and Chips, Topper. Those were my comics.
As well as entertainment they brought a kind of comfort. Familiar characters and themes, presented in a predictable way. I knew what I'd be getting and it's nice to get what you want, when you want it.
Sometime later it dawned on me that newspapers were comics too. They work in the same way, by providing a reassuringly familiar diet of content. A friend's mother was sitting at the dining table and poring intently over the Daily Mail, in a way that made me think she looked kind of childlike. She was reacting to a crime story that I was surprised not to have heard about.
By this point I was a journalist and a Guardian reader.
I understood the political leanings of the media and how bias manifested, not just in the editorial and opinion sections of the papers, but also in which stories were covered or ignored.
To give that its posh name, we're talking about Agenda Setting Theory. It's a way that all media tell you what you should care about. In the example above, the Mail has always believed that you should care about violent crime and the Guardian generally doesn't. They set different agendas.
You are seeing agenda-setting now, with every extreme weather event being reported in detail, particularly across liberal/leftish-leaning titles. This is giving the impression that there are considerably more extreme weather events than at any previous time, although the underlying data are currently contested. But that's agenda-setting.
I'm not interested in adjudicating on whether this agenda is 'correct' or not, save to say that some incidents attributed to extreme weather events/climate change seem to be driven by prior environmental abuse and poor management of land. You don't even need to venture into climate-denial spaces to find this out. But the way that a certain type of legacy media fails to address this speaks to an agenda whose 'news value' would be threatened by more thorough reporting.
So I tend to be somewhat sceptical when I see an obvious agenda in action.
But I'm also sceptical about a lot of the more paranoid criticism of the media.
For everyone who is bothered about this kind of agenda it's easy to default to an assumption that there's a conspiracy in play.
It helps to have worked in the media environment and understand that agenda-setting isn't always an attempt to manipulate readers/listeners/viewers. However appealing the idea of 'elite' media hacks conspiring to drive the 'sheeple' in a certain direction, the fact is that some themes just end up creating a kind of feedback loop.
Working on a northern daily in Britain we had a rash of claims that dangerous objects were turning up where they shouldn't. Shards of glass in pots of baby food, nails in burgers, a razor blade in a pie. It was quickly obvious that people were mostly making it up, in the hopes of getting some compensation.
We didn't believe these stories, so did we stop running them? Of course not. They made good copy, often with an emotive photograph alongside. As it is with big fires and floods today, the recurring nature of these stories gave them increasing salience. A life of their own. <Another case of baby x almost ingesting a dangerous object!!!> And, in the end, news is just a product on sale, like any other.
The other factor that gets people mad is the differing angles from which the same stories are viewed, depending on who's reporting them.
The posh term is Framing Effect. A simple illustration of this is how, during the 2019 General Election campaign in Britain, the Labour Party's plan to install broadband across the country was either portrayed as 'more public spending' or 'infrastructure investment'.
Those are the two principal ways that media gives the impression of attempting to shape public perceptions.
The trouble with this view is that it overlooks the business model in play. Which is the same as the one underlying the comics I read as a child. Give people what they want.
In my old leftishist bubble we were always furious about what we believed to be the influence of the Daily Mail. We had this impression that, out there, are all these people who don't already have opinions on things like crime, Brexit and immigration, who would have their views shaped by the paper. Even just by seeing an illiberal front page in passing, every day on a shop shelf. Ambient propaganda.
A sort of 'blank slate theory', but for media effects.
Please consider subscribing. That’s it. That’s the pitch.
It doesn't explain why people still read the left-leaning Daily Mirror, though.
And it doesn't take account of what is already known. Which is that we choose the information sources that suit us. Confirmation bias etc. Playing it safe, so that we don't have to feel stressed by uncertainty or granting that the 'other side' may not be as stupid as it comforts us to think.
It's really us who drive media bias. These businesses have to please us or they're toast.
And business is tough, which is why almost every legacy media title has been doubling down over the past couple of decades on keeping their respective consumer bases happy, typically using very cheap-to-produce opinion pieces to rouse the heart and further addle the brain.
Famously, in Britain, The Sun - still the biggest tabloid - appears to get its way at every General Election. Here's how it backed the winners for the last ten.
It's easy to look at this and declare that the right-wing Sun is influencing British voters with incredible success. I used to think that too. But what if The Sun just goes with what it knows its readers like? The last time its readers really liked the Labour Party, that's who The Sun backed. Most people haven't liked the Labour Party very much, the rest of the time, so nor has The Sun. My intuition is that this may be a case of correlation mistaken as cause.
Media bias is huge and baked in. It always was.
It seems to get worse over time, but that's probably because we are getting more annoyed over time about what the other side thinks about things. I guess this is because we are now so much more exposed to the "culturally repugnant other", thanks to social media in particular. We’re constantly exposed to the worst, shoutiest, most attention-seeking activists - or caricatures, created by our own camp - of the 'other side'.
Social media has certainly had a regrettable impact on the credibility of journalism as a profession, because journalists (especially in America) appear to see their primary audience as other journalists. In a field objectively dominated by liberal-leaning people (again, especially in the US) this has reduced many supposed journalists to the role of activist. Most famously recommended as a kind of obligation with these words, from a prominent journalist in the New York Times:
"For years, I've been among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard"
Wesley Lowery - A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led By Black Journalists
What Lowery was arguing here was that journalists should have the 'moral clarity' to objectively refer to Donald Trump, in passing, as racist, instead of beating about the bush reporting that some other people saw him as a racist. Or, as Lowery expressed it, "telling hard truths" and not depriving readers of "plainly stated facts".
It seems weird, to me, to imagine a news story headlined "Donald Trump gave a racist speech" rather than "Donald Trump accused of racism in speech", but then one person's 'moral clarity' is another person's subjective opinion and I continue to believe that subjectivity belongs in opinion sections, rather than news itself.
This blurring of the concept of objectivity and impartiality is seen, particularly on the right, as a reason to mistrust anything at all that's reported in legacy media, which is hardly surprising. Even though most legacy media is still often more reliable than people tend to think. As Richard Hanania alienated much of his readership by arguing.
It might seem strange to conclude, after all this, that media bias is not worth all the stress that it seems to cause so many people.
But that's how I see it. Media bias is real, pervasive and not really all that influential.
The agonising about how everyone outside your own group is badly misled assumes that the people outside your own group would be willing to join yours, if only the pesky media they consume hadn't fooled them.
But they are choosing the media they do to maintain a worldview that suits them. Almost all of us are doing that.
Legacy media has many biases but it gets knocked into a cocked hat for partiality when it comes to independent media, which is enjoying huge growth not because it is a beacon for truth (a trope celebrated particularly on the right) but because it's able to segment audiences more finely to give us what we want. Which is more of what we already wanted.
I'm sometimes astonished, getting on for 100 years into the age of mass media, by how poorly we understand how it works, why we choose the information that we do and how the market responds to demand for certain brands of 'news' and 'analysis'.
And the ridiculous things that we tell ourselves to shore up the belief that we alone are curating a reliable information feed.
I was urging a deeply conservative friend to consider some perspectives that correlate less with the Daily Mail worldview. He objected that he doesn't take his views from the Mail (even though that’s the newspaper that arrives in his house every day) and proceeded to list his favoured sources, apparently unaware (or unwilling to see) that a Venn diagram showing the perspectives of his 'independent' sources and the Mail would basically be a circle. He tells a story that he has changed his mind about many things when actually he has just adopted all the most fashionable anti-establishment positions favoured on the right.
Bias begins at home.
Media literacy - understanding what you're seeing and why - is hard to develop, because it's uncomfortable to hold contradictory perspectives and that's why we mostly don't bother.
But if you think that you're comprehensively informed by your carefully curated information sources, while never investigating any others, you're almost certainly mistaken. Especially if you chose them on the basis of their fit with your pre-existing values.
Stick around for more soon, on the related theme of ‘disinformation’ and ‘censorship’ and why everyone is also mostly wrong about all that.