A fellow weblogger recently challenged me in a series of emails we were sending to defend my thesis that the news is leftward biased. It was a fair question, and I am still content with the answer I sent him: Yes, I believe the news is left-biased right now, but it is only partially intentional. I thought it would be worth expanding on that point in a 'blog post.
Since "Left" and "Right" need to be defined nearly every time you use them, for this post I am using the broadest and most general definition of "Left" and "Right" that we are used to. Left: Liberal, welfare, no war, etc. Right: Conservative, much less social spending, war in Iraq. A nebulous concept of "Left" to match the nebulous concept of "media".
Now, to define "bias". I define "bias in favor of an ideology" as "the selection of stories and slants on those stories, deliberately or otherwise, that would reasonably cause an American of average intelligence, who isn't digging into the story too deeply, to be pushed towards the given ideology."
There are two important things to note about this particular definition of "bias". One, it is a property of the stories, not necessarily the writers. In other words, I'm looking at the final product that you can see on CNN or Fox, not the process or the people. Second, note I explicitly put "American" in the definition; this definition of bias is explicitly relative to the mainstream of some culture.
So, why do I think the coverage is biased to the left?
Well, suppose there's the reasonably large place, and here's one day's evening television news coverage of this place:
- Freeway to re-open after being shut down due to destroyed overpass
- Witness to murder being terrorized, lives in fear
- Cell phone store robbed
- Two men shot to death and two children wounded in street ambush, over 50 rounds fired into car
- Officer busts one hospital patient stealing from unconcious patient
- Book drive collects nearly 110,000 books
- Infrastructure failure shuts down two buildings
- Man killed attempting escape from authorities
What do you think of this place?
Yes, you probably see this coming from a mile away, after all I'm not the first to pull this: That's not Iraq. That's what WXYZ, the largest television station in Detroit, thought was the important news in Detroit for May 6, 2004. (If you hurry, you can see the full stories at wxyz.com.).
(Parenthetically... I noticed as I was writing the list above that we don't get anywhere that level of detail from Iraq stories; "Soldiers killed" is often all we meaningfully get. The biggest clue the list above isn't from Iraq is that even horribly, horribly condensed as it is, to the point of distorting some of the stories (like the hospital one), it still has more detail about the actual events that transpired then we seem to get from Iraq. I wonder why that is?)
Every day in the Detroit area, millions of things happen. Most of those millions of things would make a human interest story in the hands of a skilled journalist, and the vast majority of them range from neutral to good. But thanks to "If it bleeds, it leads" as it relates to news as business, what do we get as the "news"? Stories of crime, infrastructure failure, and a book drive story that is only in there because the relevant news organization was a participant.
I do not challenge the idea that each of those stories is news. Even the slants given to them are legitimate, taken independently. But taken all together, is this really a fair view of Detroit? The cynic in me says "Yes!", but he's wrong on this one. At best, there are some small areas this is representative of, but not all of the Detroit area covered by WXYZ.
This distorts everyone's views of society because people get far more information from the news then any other source. How can I tell if crime is improving or not over a longer term? If I just watch the news, no clue. Is crime high? Obviously, since it makes up so much of the news, it's a big problem, so let's spend more money on it, even though it doesn't ever make the news stories go away.
Now, in Detroit, though of us living in the area know that that isn't representative of our personal experiences. The problem is even more egregiously amplified when we're dealing in things where our personal experience isn't available to counter-balance the coverage, and we get secondary problems when we're using this faulty coverage to make Major History-Making Decisions.
The coverage coming out of Iraq is slightly worse then Detroit's coverage. (Not a typo. People getting gunned down almost isn't news in some parts of Detroit, and most of them are of the soldier age, or slightly younger. The "coverage" is more concentrated on the soldiers, so there's still more bad things happening per person, but the coverage is only slightly worse... add another couple of major city's coverage in and we can probably match the coverage from Iraq, bad story for bad story.) The problem is, with coverage of everything slammed so hard to the negative, what are we expected to conclude?
Using the definition I gave above, we must conclude this is highly left-slanted bias, because it leads towards more social programs for crime prevention, thinking Iraq is a disaster, etc., all the bullet points of the left. The failure of the left to do better in this country is almost inexplicable, really.
What would right-slanted coverage be? Well, are all the stories coming out of Iraq bad news? No, not even on the personal level. How about this, or this? (Yes, that last one is from an Official News Outlet, albeit a minor one.) Those stories are, by my definition, right-biased. (Of course, publishing a small handful of them hardly makes up for the overwhelming number of leftward biased stories.)
Given the historical importance of our actions in Iraq, it is vitally important that we have a balanced view. What do the soliders think? Why not randomly contact some and commit in advance to relaying what they say, instead of picking and choosing a slant and filling it in? After all, I already know that you can find soldiers who believe they are doing the right thing, soldiers who see Iraqis as sub-human, and soldiers who are mini-Chomsky's but too afraid of the legal repercussions to go AWOL. What's the balance? Truthfully, I have no idea, and I don't see any way that I can get one right now.
In a later post I intend to discuss what few empirical measurements we are getting that as long as they are truthfully relayed, can not really be distorted, only spun. For now, it suffices to observe that we are getting almost nothing like this, except perhaps soldier death counts.
Even the polls amoung Iraqis are meaningless, because not only are they inevitably distorted by the news organizations themselves (a two-paragraph question that they summarize as "Do Iraqis hate America?"), but they're not even in our language so very few of us can understand the nuances of the question asked. News reports about the result of a poll are useless unless the exact question and precise distribution of all answers are reported, without the reporter adding classifications of their own. (Example: If people split evenly into quarters with the answers "Strongly disagree, lightly disagree, lightly agree, strongly agree", you'll see the same poll spun as "Only 25% of Americans strongly support the President" and as "75% of Americans largely think the President is doing a good job." Almost all polls that I see reported on television have this sort of category collapsing done before they report the results; as far as I'm concerned, that's flat-out lying about the poll.)
An interesting question: "'If it bleeds, it leads' is a truth resulting from the viewers, not the members of the industry. As a result, left-biased stories are the main trade of the big industry right now, whether they like it or not. To what degree is the the left slant that the media chooses a cause of over-covering the bad news, and to what degree is it an effect?" After all, you can't live with that sort of thing without it affecting you; the police and emergency medical technicians also get a highly skewed view of the world. You can also translate this question to "How much of the left bias is chosen, and how much is an effect of the world they live in, with instant access to every bad thing that happens, often even forcing itself in on them?"
Right now, I am very confident that the news coverage in Iraq is skewed so badly left that it is nearly useless for making any sort of decision about the issues Iraq represents. We need a better balance. I have absolutely no idea how much it is skewed left, because there is almost no counter-balancing news coming out that is easy to get to. I'd like to see some more "statistical sampling" of both soldiers and Iraqis, to get their opinions directly. I'd like to see the schools being built and some of the Iraqi "good guys" like the new police force, doing Police-y things. I'd like to hear about the parts of Iraq that aren't daily gun battles. I'd like to know what proportion of Iraq that is; Detroit sounds like a hell-hole until you find out that the majority of the crime news comes out of about a a couple of two-square-mile areas!
Non-Iraqi examples of right-biased stories that we don't see very often, with left-bias complement story:
Right Left Welfare back-to-work standards raised; man forced to leave welfare rolls and ends up making five times what he did on welfare Single mother forced to leave welfare rolls and forced to place child in day care and work 70 hours a week Gun used in self-defense by 80-year-old woman against 21-year old assailant Man accidentally fatally shoots self during altercation Charity saves man's life Crime takes man's life
If I were motivated, I could fill in each slot in the table there with an actual story, but I think it is clear that each and every one of them happen. The question is not whether they happen, but the quantity and quality of the occurances.
There is an old saying in Science: "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'." But all we get from the media is a series of anecdotes and what rare data we get has been so "processed" it isn't data anymore, and these things overwhelmingly favor the "left" agenda. I don't know how to assign blame, so I'll avoid it here, but under the definitions I've given, I don't think there's really any way to question the bias.
You can see the problems with this all the time; consider Timothy Bray's recent post about the torture incident. While the torture is a legitimate problem and I am ashamed by the cavalier way the administration seemed to treat the issue in the months before it became public, I think Timothy Bray falls victim to some of the lack of context that he's getting from the news. You have to account for how selective our news is... and to me, there's a story even bigger then the torture story: We're still on the same torture story. If this really was systematic and pervasive, we should know about other incidents by now, because this sort of coverage shakes other similar news free, as people see a benefit to themselves if they sell the story. The lack of other torture stories is a very good indication that this is an anomoly, and it should be considered in that light; very bad, but as representative of the occupation as this story is of Michigan.
I'm not naive enough to think I can ever fully trust the news to get this right; we'll always need our salt shakers close at hand when reading the news. But I shouldn't need to reverse-engineer the true distribution of news events from a source that is so skewed that it's almost hopeless. Such reverse-engineering is dangerous, because it's easy to get wrong, but it's still the best thing I've got, much better then naively trusting the distribution implied by the media itself. We need a better sense of scale.
This also, again, reminds me of my Seeing the Forest for the Trees post; micro-scale stories tend to favor the trees, a sense of scale and distribution will tend to favor the forest point of view. Our current news media process is can't see the trees for the leaves, let alone the forest.
As a final caveat, note that I am giving you the definitions I'm using for the relevant terms precisely because I know they are not the only relevant definitions you could potentially give. For instance, one could indeed write a definition of "media bias" in terms of the slant deliberately given by the media by story POVs and story selection. I am much less certain that by that definition, the media is biased; it is my opinion but I would find effectively impossible to defend because I do not have the data to do it with. But as an engineer type, I am more concerned about the end result then the process.
Update: Here is an example of the kind of perspective I'd like to see. I say this without intent to endorse the posting either way, and you should bear in mind the source: A soldier with a track record of caring about Iraqis by action, not just words. A few more diverse accounts of what is going on and we may just get closer to the truth then you can get with soundbites, hype, and left-wing schadenfreude.