Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On bias

Montana Headlines has a thoughtful post (meaning, I agree with it) on media bias. He cites a Jay Cost piece that makes a point I have been pounding on for years: Sure, media bias exists, but the left-right bias that gets all of the attention is only a tiny, and not terribly relevant, part of the picture.


The Steel Trap said...

I think your friend over at Montana Headlines, by dwelling on the argumentative points contained in the Jay Cost article, missed the forest for the trees. Here is the key part of the Cost article:

“The press exercises power over all of us by influencing us on what subjects we will, and will not, consider; and how we will, and will not, consider them. They do not influence what we believe per se. But they do influence what we are thinking about, and also the way in which we frame current events. This is one reason why conservatives and liberals blast seemingly liberal or conservative newspapers for ignoring certain stories and promoting others, for framing issues in one way and not another way. This is a reaction to the press' role to set the agenda.”

When reading news stories, what I have done for years is to identify the agenda first. For example, a headline from today’s newswire: “Feds, Legal Threats Put Snacks on a Diet”

If you do not recognize that headline as part of the ongoing liberal agenda of government intervention, judicial legislation, and female health hysteria, then you must proceed to the opening paragraphs:

“America's snack food makers are marketing smaller portion packs, using healthier fats and reducing sugar in some of the nation's favorite potato chips and cookies.

“While they're trying to make money off of greater demand for healthier grab-and-go food, they're also hoping the new products will help them avoid increased federal regulation and the threat of lawsuits that allege complicity for the nation's rising rate of obesity.”

Ah, yes, the old “health crisis” caused by evil big business! The only elements missing from this typically leftwing, agenda-driven story are nefarious mind control (the masses have been duped!) and an appeal to all adults of good conscience to “protect our children.” Those elements are introduced in the third paragraph:

“Kellogg Co., maker of Pop-Tarts and Cheez-It crackers, said last week it will restrict use of licensed characters such as Shrek in its advertising, and either reduce the amount of calories, fat, sugar and sodium in products or stop marketing them to children under age 12 by the end of next year.”

Having identified the liberal agenda bias, at this point, I usually stop reading the story. Ho-hum. If I continue on--just to see if any new spin has been added to an old agenda--I apply my formula for filtering biased reporting: Add everything together, divide by two, and change the sign.

--The Steel Trap

David said...

Maybe my mind is made out of the wrong kind of metal, but I'm missing the liberal agenda here. The lede you cite strikes me as perfectly neutral assessment of facts -- it may be accurate or not, but it is neither right nor left. Your other quote, from the third paragraph, likewise makes a factual assertion. Where's the bias?

The Steel Trap said...

David: When was the last time you heard a conservative press advance the idea that the government or courts should get involved in determining what food people should eat at what age? Do you have any idea what kind of outfit the Center for Science in the Public Interest is? They are quoted as an authority in this article! (Read “False Alarm: A Report on the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1971-2006” by Steven Milloy.)

The article is nothing more than a reshuffling of the food falsehoods advanced in socialist Britain as a pretext for controlling business and the choices people make.

But all that aside, the point is subject selection, not story content. As Cost said in his article, “The press exercises power over all of us by influencing us on what subjects we will, and will not, consider; and how we will, and will not, consider them.”

The bias is in the subject, David. Get it?

David said...

Steel Trap, I'm missing the place in the story, at least in the parts you quoted, that says the government or courts should get involved. I think it tries to make the point that the government and courts already are involved, and the industry is responding. Sounds like a legitimate news story to me, and if the conservative press wouldn't cover it because it doesn't like the implications, then I would call that bias.

The Steel Trap said...


I think we can end this debate right now with a few quotes from a news story published today by MSNBC entitled, “Journalists dole out cash to politicians (quietly).” It turns out reporters at major news outlets are giving money to leftwing causes 10 to 1 over rightwing causes.

“The donors said they try to be fair in reporting and editing the news. One of the recurring themes in the responses is that it's better for journalists to be transparent about their beliefs, and that editors who insist on manufacturing an appearance of impartiality are being deceptive to a public that already knows journalists aren't without biases.

“The openness didn't extend, however, to telling the public about the donations. Apparently none of the journalists disclosed the donations to readers, viewers or listeners. Few told their bosses, either.

“Americans don't trust the news or newspeople as much as they used to. The crisis of faith is traced by the surveys of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. More than seven in ten (72 percent) say news organizations tend to favor one side, the highest level of skepticism in the poll's 20-year history.”


Oh, and one last thing on news bias: Be sure to read about what is going on at your favorite show, NPR.

Ed Kemmick said...

The story may cite the Center for Science in the Public Interest, but what is much more important is that it refers specifically to the actions of a corporation, Kellogg Co.

It doesn't matter who was behind the actions that induced Kellog Co. to take the steps it is taking---the news is that it is taking the steps. Refusing to report on the company's actions because you think statements about public health are bogus is not merely biased, it would be suicide if you were in the news business.

David said...

Yeah, I figured that survey would come up. I heard about it on the radio. I haven't looked at the actual survey, and don't have time for that today, so I'll make just a couple of general observations.

1. In my experience, very few journalists donate to political causes of any kind. I certainly don't, and I'll bet you will find very few who do. So I would be skeptical of drawing conclusions about journalists as a whole based on the behavior of the small and unrepresentative percentage who make political donations.

2. I would be especially skeptical about presuming that the beliefs of journalists at "major news outlets" are typical of journalists as a whole. The major outlets tend to be in liberal enclaves along the coasts and aren't necessarily representative of all journalists, any more than a New York labor leader is typical of all working people.

3. Interesting that you would now divert the topic from the argument that one story in particular is biased to an argument that journalists in general are liberal. Even if the second proposition is true, it doesn't prove the first.

The Steel Trap said...


You and Mr. Kemmick have been in denial so long about the abysmal credibility of your trade that your responses to charges of bias have become comically predictable. You dissemble, you play stupid, you play sophist—you play whatever role seems best suited to free you from the latest indictment. But the facts are in. The public has passed judgment.

David said...

And now you are in full retreat. Your example falls apart, so you fall back on a poll. When the poll is challenged, you fall back on the judgment of the public. But the public is not the arbiter of the facts.

This whole discussion started from a simple premise: Yes, media bias exists, but it exists in far more varied and more important forms than the usual right-left divide. For all of your bloviating, you have yet to challenge that premise.