Thursday, December 22, 2005

Media bias

evolution: it's evolution, baby:
Joel Mathis, Lawrence.com and Journal-World writer, sends along a couple of links regarding the UCLA media bias study which concluded that the media — even media thought of as conservative — tilt to the left, and that those media thought of as left-wing cesspools (like NPR) are not really all that biased.
Full study available here.

Media Matters looked at it and has some thoughtful criticism.

First, the most liberal news source (wait for it): The Wall Street Journal. No. And Drudge is not a liberal either. People read the Journal's news pages for accurate information without a political bias. That's what you need to make business decisions. If the Journal's news were ideologically biased, businessmen would read something less ideological, like the New York Times (if we believe the study's results).

But we shouldn't trust the results, because the methodology is screwy, and it's easy to see why.

All they do is count references to think tanks by reporters, using those references to indicate the reporters' biases compared to the congresscritters who cite the same think tanks.

Here are some interesting results (quoted from Media Matters):

  • National Rifle Association of America (NRA) scored a 45.9, making it "conservative" -- but just barely.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), bête noire of the right, scored a 49.8, putting it just on the "conservative" side of the ledger.
  • Center for Responsive Politics, a group whose primary purpose is the maintenance of databases on political contributions, scored a 66.9, making it highly "liberal."
  • Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank whose board of directors is currently chaired by former Representative Dave McCurdy (D-OK), scored a 33.9, making it more "conservative" than AEI and than the National Taxpayers Union.
Is anyone honestly prepared to say that this study has changed their mind about the NRA and ACLU in a way that lets each be essentially politically neutral? Because I confess that I don't buy either. Both are large, popular groups and politicians from all sides will cite them, even if they disagree, and all news sources will cite them. Small, insignificant think tanks will be cited most often by partisans, but that doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the think tank.

Furthermore, as Media Matters points out, an article could cite a congressman saying something bad about affirmative action, then balance that with a quote from the NAACP. There are no "pro-racism" think tanks to balance NAACP, so the balanced story quotes an individual and a think tank. Is there a liberal bias because only a liberal think tank was cited? Of course not, but that's how this study would score that article, and probably all the coverage of the issue.

It's stupid.

Maybe there is a media bias, maybe there isn't. My inclination is that a lot of people see reporting unfavorable data as a liberal bias, which is interesting. That's why the Center for Responsive Politics shows up as "liberal," when all it does is make numbers available. That isn't liberal bias, it's good government bias. I think there's a "balance bias" in the media which is more harmful. First you present side A, then you let side B present their sound bite, then you conclude by writing that opinions differ. To me, that isn't reporting, it's stenography. It favors the side with less evidence and less genuine support. It happens all the time with evolution (the idea, not the blog). But how about a more politically charged issue. As global climate change becomes more and more widely supported by climate scientists, journalists are simply forced to go further and further afield to find "balance" for stories about greenhouse gas emissions. That ignores the important story – the scientific consensus is solidly behind anthropogenic climate change. It's an inadvertent bias toward the conservative position, even though it looks balanced on paper.

Furthermore, the study itself notes that RAND's liberal bias comes from biased citations by Congress. Congresscritters cite the domestic policy studies more than the military studies, giving the Congressional representation a liberal slant. The study's authors don't attempt to account for such divergence. The same thing happened for the ACLU, which opposed McCain-Feingold, and was cited by conservatives for that one action.

"Liberal" and "conservative" are not hard and fast boundaries, nor do "liberal" think tanks act in a unitary way. Reporters can and do cite sources differently than legislators, but this study makes no effort to even attempt to quantify that effect, nor to evaluate the internal divides in an organization. They ought to see how often a think tank is cited taking a particular position, but that would "require [them] to make a subjective assessment of how liberal or conservative a think tank is."

One reason they may have done things in such a shoddy way is that it gave them an ideologically satisfying answer. Both are regular recipients of funds from indisputably conservative think tanks.