Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Media Bias

Via Kevin, I see that Ted, at Cerberus, has written an interesting post on the topic of media bias.

So let's talk about media bias. What does it even mean to say that a
newspaper, for example, is biased?

You might say that bias is when a paper shows favouritism towards someone or something. For example, you might say that the media is biased in favour of gore (or more pithily, 'if it bleeds it leads'). For example, consider the two studies on media bias conducted by McGill Univeristy's Observatory on Media and Public Policy over the course of the last two federal elections. Both showed that the media, as a whole contained much more negative references to the Liberals than they did to the Conservatives, so it appears that the media has a right-wing bias, at least with regard to federal election campaigns

But wait, you might argue, the Conservatives did well and the Liberals did poorly in both of those elections, so maybe the newspapers were just reflecting reality, not showing a bias in their negative coverage of the Liberals.

Or, to make the point more clearly, if I get arrested and the newspaper runs a headline, "Declan arrested," that is pretty unfavourable to me, but it's hardly a basis for me to claim the media is biased against me. But if, on the other hand, I could claim that the newspaper made a much bigger deal out of my arrest than it did in a similar case with someone else, then I might have a case.

For another example of this type of approach to claiming bias, see this post by Andrew Sullivan comparing the media reaction to terrorist plots by Muslims vs. the reaction when it is white far-right extremists who are doing the plotting.

So the point is that it is more than just showing favour or disfavour which constitutes bias, there must be some sense in which this showing of favour/disfavour is not consistent with 'proper' reporting. The Wikipedia entry on media bias says that "The term "media bias" usually refers to a pervasive or widespread bias contravening the standards of journalism" but I don't think this is quite right. Aside from defining bias as bias, media bias is a little different than just breaking the standards of journalism.

Some forms of bias such as taking quotes out of context may violate journalistic standards, but other forms, such as hiring lots of right-wing columnists, or never writing any articles about poverty do not. It would probably take a Jane Jacobs style empircal approach reading through all the claims of bias over they years to enumerate all the different types of media bias which exist (an interesting exercise, I wonder if anyone has ever done that), but here are a few that I came up with off the top of my head:

1) Unequal response to an equal situation.

This media matters post which asks the question, 'Why has CNN devoted 50 times as much coverage to Harry Reid's land deal as Dennis Hastert's?' is a good example of this. It even has a chart showing comparing the two situations to demonstrate that the media response to one is not consistent with the media response to the other.

Here is another example. Again, the point is an unequal reaction to an equal situation.

2) Unequal representation / opportunity to present one's case

Again, Media Matters has an excellent example of the form. In this case, they compared the composition of panels on network television over the years, to show that Republicans/right wing spokespeople were given more chances to present their views than were Democrats/left wing spokespeople.

3) Unrepresentative selection of story material

For example, as I write this, there are about half a dozen stories on the Blogging Tories site relating to Muslims casuing trouble in Europe. Meanwhile, the Progressive Bloggers site has a number of stories up talking about the religious right and the role it plays in Canada's Conservative party. Now you may have your own opinion of which is the bigger story, but I don't think it's a controversial statement to say that at any given moment, both aggregators tend to have more stories about topics which are helpful to their goals.

4) Selective quoting

For example, consider the case that prompted Ted's post:

Another case in point: Linda Diebel's coverage of the Michael Ignatieff campaign. Kinsella focuses on the attempt by Diebel to create some drama and conflict and imply a "crack" in the campaign and even a lie from the campaign chair. I've now seen a copy of that transcript too. She did the same thing earlier in the week with his interview on the Middle East crisis. Compare the article she wrote in the Toronto Star here and here with the actual transcript of the two interviews and judge for yourself:

Toronto Star Article

The article: "Last week, however, back in Toronto, Ignatieff told the Star his mother-in-law was, in fact, not ill.

"There is no health crisis," he said. "There never was. Anybody who said there was, was not authorized to say that. I never purported to say that."

He apologized for the confusion."

Actual Interview Transcript

"I'’ve been following minutely since the beginning and watching it unfold and figuring out when was the time when a statement would be important and relevant. Timing is all here. I just felt that this was the moment when it was important to observe the potentially regional dangers that follows. It's one thing if Israel goes in for 48 hours to hit Hezbollah. It's another thing if it goes in for 72, it's another if it goes in for a week, it's another if it’s in there 2-3 weeks later. Each of these situations is different and the commentary you make in one situation is not the commentary you will make in another.

My personal situation is very simple. I'’m married to a Hungarian. Her mother is 84. She is not in great health, but there is no health crisis. There never was. Anyone who said there was was not authorized to say that and I've never purported to say that. You know she's 84. I love her and want to spend time with her. It's not complicated. She some has health issues, they're chronic, not acute. We chose to take our break with her because she's a sweetheart and I want to spend time with her. And I was working on some campaign writing while I was there and also following the situation hour by hour.

Certainly, I'm entitled to a holiday but I don't want at any point to convey a set of obstacles or false trails for someone like you or anybody else."

Toronto Star article
"It wasn't Qana," replied Ignatieff, formerly head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. "Qana was, frankly, inevitable, in a situation in which you have rocket-launchers within 100 yards of a civilian population. This is the nature of the war that's going on."

"This is the kind of dirty war you're in when you have to do this and I'm not losing sleep about that.""

Actual Interview Transcript

"I didn't react this way because of Qana. Qana was a tragedy and I refer to it in the piece [his statement on the Middle East]. It was a tragedy for the Lebanese and it was unfortunately a victory for Hezbollah. This is how this game is played. It wasn't Qana. Qana frankly is inevitable in a situation in which you have rocket launchers located within 100 yards of civilian populations. This is the nature of the war that is going on. What I say in the piece, Hezbollah is very deliberately sitting rocket launchers and military installations in the heart of civilian populations to provide it protection and also to set up situations in which Israel will commit civilian casualties that will reduce its international credibility. So this is the kind of dirty war you'’re in when you have to do this. I'm not losing sleep about that. What I'm saying is that there are escalation thresholds here which we are just about to trip. And it is very important that we understand what could be about to happen and that we take action to stop it."


I can spot the difference. Can you spot the difference?

I'm sure there are many more types of media bias which can occur, but you get the picture. OK, having talked about what media bias is and the forms bias can take, the next thing to look at is the different ways in which media can be biased.

If you read a lot of political blogs, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is only one kind of media bias: political bias. More specifically, the media is either biased to the left (what Americans and their Canadian imitators like to call 'the Liberal media') or biased to the right (often referred to as the 'corporate media').

Ted argues that there is no such thing as political media bias ("I believe theories of rightwing or leftwing media bias are utter bunk") and instead claims that there are 3 ways in which media can be biased:

"If there are any "tendencies" or leanings overall, I'd concede that there are maybe three:

1. Drama and conflict sells. The newspaper or the newsbroadcast has to sell. Unfortunately, we, the public, buy up the stuff that sells so there is a tendency to push up the drama, the conflict, the gore. That's why we heard far more about the Chretien-Martin wars than we ever did about the many things the Liberal government was accomplishing during that time (which, by the way, was a huge help for the Conservatives!).
2. The Fourth Estate defenders of the underdog. Many reporters take their role as the "Fourth Estate" seriously. I personally believe their function in a democracy is critical. Conservatives hate to admit and nearly always ignore it, but there would have been no Adscam if reporters at the Globe had not done the digging and reporting, as just one example. This sometimes does lead to taking the side of the underdog or at least against the government, the winning sports team, the expected winner of a contest, for the perceived little guy, against the big corporation.
3. Making it readable or watchable. There are a ton of facts out there. People read or watch the news for the story that pulls these facts together. Who has time to watch every sports game? Who has time to sit in front of CPAC all day? So there is a narrative that runs through an article. Sometimes a reporter may even smooth away some edges that are not so easily absorbed into a story in the few paragraphs or few seconds that will be allotted for the story"

Ted's point is that the biased quoting of Ignatieff was symptomatic of these 3 built-in media biases as opposed to reflecting a political or personal bias. I disagree on the details - 'making things more readable or watchable' sounds more like a job description for the media as opposed, necesarily, to a bias - and I would argue that there are far more than 3 (an infinite number, really) ways in which media tends to be biased, but the main point is well taken: in any given instance of media bias, there are many possible reasons for the bias, so it is hasty to alwasys assume political bias as the motivator.

For example, media exaggerates the threat of crime, not because they are right-wingers who are excited by how the word 'crime' rhymes with 'time' but because, as Ted says, conflict sells. By the same token, media exaggerates the grave threat posed by shopping cart injuries not because they are government-regulation-promoting lefties, but because fear sells, especially threats to people's children. As for how to isolate the source of bias in each case - I don't really know how, the best bet is probably to attempt, media matters style, to isolate cases where only the political left-right element is different and everything else is the same - then any bias we see must be political.

OK, back to Ted's other claim that "theories of rightwing or leftwing media bias are utter bunk" The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that he is referring to allegations that the entire media is biased, in which case, fair enough, but I don't think that is really what most critics of the media mean.

If the media is 90% right wing biased and 10% left wing biased, I'm not sure how useful it is to say that there is no media bias just because the entire media is not biased in one direction. My own opinion is that the media tends to be, on balance, biased to the right in Canada, with the Star and Globe offsetting each other, and the Sun chain and the National Post tipping the scales to the right. In the U.S. the right-wing bias is more extreme, although U.S. culture is more right wing as well, so perhaps that is an offsetting factor. We can save questions of absolute bias vs. relative bias for another post on another day.

I stated my opinion there about the Canadian media being biased, but there's not much I can do in the way of backing it up. Because of the many different potential sources of bias, even if you were able to come up with a workable definition of bias, and you were further able to go through the media and isolate all the instances of bias and to classify them as left-wing or right-wing, you would still face the issue of figuring out if these biases were really due to politics or of they were driven by some other source of bias on the media.

Given the near impossibilty of measuring media bias directly, people have tried to come up with ways of measuring it indirectly. For instance, right-wing folks like to argue that because most journalists are left-leaning in their personal opinions, it stands to reason that they will make left-biased reports. Left-wing folks counter by pointing out that the owners of most media are wealthy, right-wing people so it stands to reason that the media they own would reflect their biases. Personally, I think that, in a workplace situation, if the boss wants one thing and the employee wants another, I have a fairly good idea how it will turn out. Also worth considering is the relative right or left wing bias of the Toronto Star and National Post and the cause and effect relationship between the ownership's views, the composition of the staff at the papers and the bias of the end product.

Well, as my high school history teacher taught me to always ask, so what? The media has a lot of biases, some obvious, some subtle, some politically motiated, some not. What is the best course of action for someone on the receiving end of the media?

Do we, as individuals, have a duty to try and correct instances of media bias wherever we run across them?

Do we have a duty to only point out those instances of bias which work against what we think is best? For example, the media's bias towards doom and gloom scenarios might be an asset in the fight to get government to take action on climate change. But maybe this bias only goes part of the way towards offsetting the government bias towards the status quo, towards not rocking the boat, and especially towards not imposing tough rules on powerful, extremely wealthy and economically important industries. Do we, in these cases, have a duty to exploit the media's weaknesses to the overall benefit of society - or at least to look the other way? Which media bias means are acceptable for achieving which ends?

Or do we, as individuals, have any duty in this regard other than to get the best information for ourselves and let other people take their own chances with fighting through media bias to get to what is true and important.

Or do we even have this duty, perhaps we should only seek out the highest entertainment value, and if that means being more concerned with which singer is having a divorce vs. which country we are invading next then so be it. I can't accept this last option, but I wonder about the previous ones, especially since it mirrors the same question I ask myself about my own blog.

Is it better to be as non-partisan as possible in the hopes of promoting what is actually true and right, or is it better to take sides and work simply to defeat that which seems like the biggest current threat, leaving objectivity and non-partisanity behind as neessary to accomplish that goal. Not that I am deluded enough to think this blog has any real impact, it is just the theoretical question which bothers me.

Oh well, it's almost time for Desperate Housewives, so I'll have to leave it at that.


  • When bloggers quote things it's usually considered good form to link to the source for verification. Perhaps online versions of newspapers should have a similar policy of linking to full transcripts. How did Ted get a copy of them anyway?

    By Blogger Mark Dowling, at 10:52 AM  

  • I imagine Ted got a copy from someone in the Ignatieff campaign, although that's just a guess.

    As for the media providing links to what they talk about, I couldn't agree more.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:14 PM  

  • Perhaps I've misread you, but something that doesn't appear to be part of the immediate discussion is that bias can be unintentional and intentional.

    I think that in evaluating bias, and whether or not one attaches opprobrium to that bias, it's important to distinguish between stacking a media outlet full of communists of a particular stripe, and meglecting to write about a particular story because it isn't on the radar of the community.

    And then then there's the whole fact/value distinction that grounds the entire debate...

    Anyway, a thought-provoking read (I don't know where all those words come from - I struggle to write a third of what you do!). Thanks for this, Declan.

    By Blogger A Conductor, at 7:59 AM  

  • This is a good post. They're difficult questions that you've asked.

    As you might have guessed I think we do have some obligations. Your questions are very specific. I find myself going the opposite direction and working on a more general approach.

    In a democracy I think people do have obligations as well as rights. I think people are obliged to support their rights and freedoms through participation. I think political discourse is an excellent way to participate. I think the discourse has to be honest and as truthful as it can be if it is going to support a democracy. I think openly dishonest or radically partisan discourse performs the opposite service.

    From that general fluff I'll try answer the specific questions:

    Do we, as individuals, have a duty to try and correct instances of media bias wherever we run across them?

    If we did, it would be a full time job. If it's a topic that we feel strongly about and we know that it's untruthful or dishonest then I think we have some responsibility to speak out. It's not our only responsibility or our highest one but I think we have one.

    Do we have a duty to only point out those instances of bias which work against what we think is best?

    No, I think that all sides of a discussion are better served when it's as honest as possible. When we ignore legitimate criticisms of positions we hold it devalues our opinions. I would think they'd count for less in other's views. It does for me anyway. I pay more attention to people who are willing to take critical stances on issues surrounding topics they generally support. I think doing so, encourages others to do the same.

    Or do we, as individuals, have any duty in this regard other than to get the best information for ourselves and let other people take their own chances with fighting through media bias to get to what is true and important.

    Yes and no. Obviously each person should do their own thinking. It is the process of getting and sharing the best information we can that leads to the discourse that I think help produces better solutions, a more informed population and supports a stronger democracy.

    Hmm ... that all sounded smarter in my head than it does in actual words. Ah well.

    By Blogger KevinG, at 10:36 AM  

  • A Little Thought - You're right, and there's lots more stuff that ideally I might have covered, but the post was getting long... As for length I find that if I time to write and I start writing, the hard part is trying to be concise, rather than coming up with enough words. Of course, if I'm trying to write well, then, well, the words come slower, but this is a blog, so who needs to write well when you can write a lot....

    Kevin - I'm retty much in agreement with your assessment, although my tolerance for ends-justifies-the-means type choices might be a little higher.

    Mainly I'm just glad you didn't go into a big rant about me wanting the government to legislate us all to fight media bias, based on the word duty always implying a legal obligation... :)

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:43 PM  

  • I was tempted to do tongue in cheek version :)

    By Blogger KevinG, at 7:02 AM  

  • Excellent post.

    The problem with bias is that it's always subjective. Even starkly obvious bias, the kind you can pick out with a fingernail, you'll always be able to find someone, somewhere willing to defend it as unbiased because it suits their status quo. And because they believe it to be so, it won't be bias to them, it'll be gospel, even though to you and me it's unqualified bullshit. "Unequal representation" and "selective quoting" in some quarters are seen as "restoring balance" and "setting the record straight" ... so long as the balance tips their way.

    To me, that's the hard part about fighting bias; getting the other side to admit they HAVE a bias.

    As for the fight itself - whether we should keep the faith or play to win - well I used to be a lot more idealistic than I am now. But I still think if we just exercise our brains regularly, they can get pretty good at deflecting most of the crap that gets shoveled at them.

    By Blogger sean incognito, at 10:25 PM  

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