Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Even when they study us, they don't understand us

Someone I know -- a good guy despite his media-bashing hobby -- passed along a UCLA study supposedly proving "media bias is real."

The conclusions are interesting, and I think you could take something of value from the cross-comparisons of media coverage and politician rankings. But the study doesn't prove media bias. It assumes it.

More importantly, it assumes media bias of a political nature. At this point, I always have to sigh and point, once again, to Andrew Cline's exceptional explanation of how media bias actually works. (Nutshell: We're sensationalists drunk on the access to powerful people who trump up conflicts to sell papers and drive ratings. But it's probably a little tougher to raise money for a media watchdog along those lines. No one will ever go broke reassuring ideologues that anything that challenges their world view is tainted.)

Specifically ...

1. The study is too dependent on conventional political language of “liberal” and “conservative.” Even in these polarized times, those labels are far too malleable to apply with any scientific weight. This weekend, my wife read some comments by Bob Barr ripping Bush as harshly as any wind-up devotee. Evangelicals are signing on to the environmental movement. McCain doesn’t tow the GOP party line but is reliably “conservative” by most measures.

2. The study analyzes content, but it says nothing of bias. That word implies that coverage is distorted by someone’s political views. In fact, the comments on the Drudge Report demonstrate the opposite – in their terms, Drudge is “conservative,” but his content is “liberal.” My hunch is that most NPR and PBS journalists are farther to the left than their corporate media counterparts, yet their scores are centrist. I don’t know that USA TODAY’s journalists are less “liberal” than some of their counterparts at other papers, but the paper’s populist mission would make a left-leaning crusading investigation a bad fit.

Again, there's some value in the conclusions. But the pessimist in me doubts that anyone will take this study for what it is and what it is not. One of the most frustrating aspects of discussing journalism with non-journalists is that so many people think the editorial page accurately reflects the sentiment of everyone in the newsroom; this study's findings on the Wall Street Journal ought to put THAT notion to rest. Sadly, I think people will just take the "media bias is real" headline and run with it. I haven't bothered to check Technorati to see if I'm right.

Basically, political scientists study rhetoric, not ideas. And they study people through the lens of political actions. The problem is that not all actions are political. As Cline's essay demonstrates, the roots of bias lie elsewhere. Most journalists aren't even political journalists in the first place, and those that are political journalists are often so enraptured with the political process that their own thoughts on the issues are irrelevant. (If you think people are incapable of checking their political views at the door, consider this -- most humans have some sort of sex drive, yet most doctors can see a patient of the opposite gender ... you get the idea.)

Other media misunderstandings I've run across recently:

- A financial columnist surveying the brutal media landscape asks: "What is it about the media business that reduces otherwise gimlet-eyed journalists to hopelessly romantic idealists? Reporters who don't think twice when Hewlett-Packard tosses another 15,000 employees over the side began writing letters to Poynter's Romenesko blog debating the very idea of shareholder value once the Knight Ridder newspaper chain was forced onto the block."

It's a fair question, but there's a simple answer. At many companies, you can cut the number of employees as you cut the production volume without affecting quality. (In less boring terms -- if you're making socks, you can cut staff and make fewer socks without messing up the socks themselves.) In journalism, when you lose reporters, you lose bits of your ability to cover the news. Newspapers and TV stations have been slashing coverage of state government for the past decade -- that's hardly going to change for the better in the current climate.

- I don't like to disagree with Greensboro blogger Ed Cone, and much of his prescription for saving newspapers is valid. Where I disagree with him in the notion that all newspapers and photographers need to be out gathering video. Two problems with that. First, I'm not convinced readers want that. Are people browsing the Web specifically looking for video news? My hunch is that they're more likely to be drawn to a concise news brief, which leads to the second problem: Video editing takes valuable work time away from filing all the stories and blog posts that will be populating the in-depth, 24/7 news sites of the future.

That's not to say there's no place for video. It's just important not to let everyone get bogged down with it. We're going to be dealing with leaner, meaner news organizations in the future, after all.

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