On media bias and distortion

datePosted on 23:58, August 2nd, 2009 by Lew

BK Drinkwater has posted a good response to some of the comments on Bryce Edwards’ synopses of chapters from the book Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig of the University of Otago Politics department). In comments to BK’s post, Eric Crampton recommended Groseclose & Milyo‘s paper on the topic. Having not read the book, I’ll constrain my comments to the posts, comments and paper which I have read.

[Apologies, this is a long and dry post on a topic very dear to my heart. I also banged it up in a spare couple of hours while I ought to have been sleeping, and haven’t proofed it, so it may be incoherent. I reserve the right to subedit it without notice. The rest is over the break.]

The word ‘bias’ connotes directionality – you are biased toward a point of view and therefore away fromthe opposing point of view. This indicates purposiveness, and certainly the meaning with which people use ‘media bias’ is to talk about how ‘the media’ are ‘biased’ against or toward something as a political position. Purposiveness further entails consistency. So let me begin with my own position: I don’t know, but I believe there is no significant, consistent, purposive ideological bias in the NZ news and current affairs media. Some media outlets and journalists are more partial to certain ideological viewpoints or certain types of event than others, and I’m not arguing that there is no bias whatsoever, but I am arguing that the biases which inevitably exist in a media ecology are not significant, consistent, purposive and ideological.

That said, I have practically no hard evidence to support this belief. There exists very little hard research-based evidence to support or undermine this belief. With few exceptions, when people talk about media bias in NZ they are talking anecdotally. Consequently, I have little time for these sort of claims; and less yet because there always seems to be an ideological or political motive behind the complaint (“they’re going hard on $party!”). While I am sometimes guilty of using this to argue a false mean (“Well, since the KBR say the media are Communists and the Standardistas say they’re Tories, they must be doing a good job”), mostly I’m just suspicious that there’s a lack of critical distance on the part of the complainers. There frequently is. Critically assessing the media is hard work, and it’s frighteningly easy to get caught up in the ideological and political lines which the media run; a long-term study documented in Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News found that more than half the content of UK daily newspapers is wholly or partially derived from PR agencies or communications staff, aka ‘spin doctors’; this content is designed to suck you in and make you believe it. You’re not immune, and I’m not either.

This also gives rise to my second objection, which is the No True Scotsman fallacy employed by Chris Trotter in his comment to Bryce’s post on Rudd and Hayward’s chapter about newspapers, and a very common refrain about the ‘sphere too. He said “How anyone with even a passing interest in NZ politics could fail to notice The Herald’s consistent and outrageous political bias in favour of the National Party…”, in other words: No reasonable person could fail to see the bias. If you don’t see the bias, you’re clearly (a) one of them; (b) not looking hard enough. This is a pointless statement because it consists solely of and invites ‘does not; does too’ arguments and is therefore untestable. It’s anecdotal. Moreover it argues that anyone who disagrees with the definer is unreasonable – not much help, really.

So, absent proper research my belief, too, is anecdotal, but I’m not trying to argue a positive position without evidence; I’m arguing a null position, which is much more justifiable. And I do have the defence that I’m up to my eyeballs in the media on a daily basis, watching, listening or reading it for a job for between four and 12 hours per day, every day. My work is to conduct media research of just the type which is required to assess bias (although little of my research is assessing bias, per se). So I back my anecdotal belief pretty strongly.

The reason for the absence of hard evidence is twofold: firstly, defining media bias is devilishly hard; and secondly, it’s extremely difficult, time-consuming and methodologically fraught to measure, as you’ll see if you read the Groseclose and Milyo paper. G&M do an arguably good job of the second (developing a methodology and measuring the bias) but I find their definition of media bias (roughly, ‘significantly more liberal or conservative than Joe Lieberman’) is rather useless because of all the reasons politicians are dissimilar from the population, which makes them a poor yardstick. I don’t want to launch into a dedicated methodological critique of their work, but let’s just say I’m referring here to research which indicates that politicians tend to have certain personality traits; and those personality traits can and frequently do indicate ideological differences; therefore they don’t adequately reflect the population. And the sheer number of layers of abstraction their methodology employs puts their research on what I deem to be shaky ground. Also, they’re economists and they’ll do what they need to get numbers to work with, while (working from a discourse/content analysis perspective) I’ll do what I can to work with utterances and their meanings. But nevertheless, this all just goes to show: media research is hard to do, and harder to do meaningfully.

However, to argue that the media are ‘biased’ is different from arguing the media distort reality, which should be obviously true to anyone who’s witnessed something first-hand and then seen it in the media at a later point. They are a form of mediation, and distortions which seem purposive aren’t necessarily so. Journalism theorist Andrew Cline runs over a number of these distorting factors in his list of structual biases (as well as some actual purposive biases as well).

Many of the most common complaints about bias are simply objections to content choices – someone who cares especially about a particular thing (say: the environment) wants to see that sort of angle given prominent play in any article in which it might reasonably appear, and will cry anti-environmental bias whenever it’s given short shrift, even though the point of the article might be something else entirely. Others are simply objections to the ideological backdrop of NZ, such as the frequently-begged question that the government has a right to demand taxes from the populace, or that reasonably free markets are a necessity for a modern economy. These are legitimate complaints, but it’s tough to argue that they’re really bias. People tend to view distortions in ways which make sense to them due to the sorts of cognitive biases which BK discusses and for other reasons. One of my favourites is Michael Shermer’s hope springs eternal (formally, a sort of post-purchase rationalisation), which I think neatly explains the media bias rationale currently being run by certain Labour supporters, viz “The voters were manipulated by the media! Our party is good and competent after all, and we would have won if it weren’t for you dastardly journalists!”. BK doesn’t think this is the case, and that’s very charitable of him.

Davies’ book is all about industry bias. There are others, as well, which go into great detail on how and why the media choose what to cover and how. It’s a strongly disputed field with many views and very little actual data, not helped by the fact that a study in one country doesn’t apply elsewhere (yes, I know I’ve cited Davies’ UK study as if it’s true in NZ) and a study conducted now doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the media next year. It’s all just a bit too pat to say that the media are biased because journalists tend to be ‘liberals’ (whatever that means), or because Rupert Murdoch is a capitalist. The strongest theoretical justification for my null position (no bias) is the market: if the media all swung a certain way it’d open up an opportunity which would quickly be filled. However, as G&M (and plenty of others) observe this is a nice theory but is only a theory until people do the research to back it with actual real-world observations (and their findings suggest it doesn’t hold). Davies, on the other hand, presents a strong case for the importance of structural biases, and against ideological biases.

As you may have picked up from my constantly repeating it, what is needed is actual qualitative and quantitative research into media bias. Until there is some reasonable amount of useful information and discussion from an evidence-based perspective in NZ, all we have is what we’ve got now: people saying “I reckon” and talking as if ‘data’ is the plural of ‘anecdote’, and alienating each other when they disagree with one another’s articles of media faith. Not very useful. We have some such recent work, especially on the 2008 election campaign – the chapters in Rudd, Hayward and Craig’s book, for instance, and Babak Bahador’s research (which I can’t find on the original site any more, but it’s helpfully still up on Kiwiblog.

However, while interesting in their own right and fit to their purposes, these pieces of research don’t strike me as being rigorous, consistent or methodologically transparent enough to provide any real answers beyond the indicative. To really answer these questions, such research needs to be conducted over the long-term and on a large scale. A methodological approach or approaches need to be developed; G&M’s is useless in NZ with its less-codified political structure and small sample size (both political and media), not to mention the absence of an ADA which helpfully rates legislators. Discourse or content analysis is the way I would do this, but that opens up a whole different kettle of worms about the notional audience, and what baselines are taken as ‘unbiased’ (ultimately the problem in any such system, hence Joe Lieberman). But the real difficulties aren’t methodological: we have the talent in NZ to do this. The difficulties are in getting the time and money to do the work; thousands of hours of it, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth. Media research is expensive, and that really is the nub of why nobody has yet definitively answered the question of whether the media is biased: it’s not worth it.

L

categoryPosted in Blogosphere, Media | printPrint

41 Responses to “On media bias and distortion”

  1. Anita on August 3rd, 2009 at 07:22

    I would like to argue that there is media bias, but perhaps a slightly different flavour. We all see the world through the lens of our own experience, and we tend to blind to other ways of seeing the world, journalists are no exception.

    While the newsrooms are dominated by middle class pakeha the media will tend to reflect the concerns, priorities and opinions of the pakeha middle class.

    That’s not the political bias that we hear so much about at Kiwiblog and The Standard, but it is political bias nonetheless. It compounds other excluding factors to restrict access to the public sphere to many other groups and acts to reinforce existing social and political norms.

  2. Lew on Media Bias | BK Drinkwater on August 3rd, 2009 at 08:21

    Lew on Media Bias…

    KiwiPolitico’s Lew has written a lovely post on media bias and distortion, partly in reponse to mine. There’s not a whole lot I can add, since I basically agree with all he says….

  3. Lew on August 3rd, 2009 at 08:27

    Anita,

    Yes, that form of bias (not distinctly ideological, so not really addressed in the post) I could go on about for another 1500 words :) Sue Abel (when she was still at VUW, now at Auckland) did a close analysis of how TV coverage of the Urewera Terra raids and found drastic differences between One and 3 News on the one hand and Te Karere and Te Kaea on the other, especially around the question of who was being terrorised by whom (in Keenan (ed.) Terror in our Midst?, 2008).

    The overarching question, however, is the same: what is the effect of the way different worldviews are embedded in newsgathering processes and coverage, and more importantly, how to quantify that difference? This might be pretty clear and evident in a headline case such as the Urewera, and anyone who’s watched a lot of news can list a lot of obvious differences, but what do they mean?

    L

  4. Anita on August 3rd, 2009 at 08:48

    Lew,

    I must work, but quickly… :)

    I’m pretty sure quite a lot of work has been done on quantifying those kind of biases from an identity politics point of view – looking at the amount and type of coverage of issues related to women, to ethnic communities, to queer communities and so on. I’m not sure how robust their methodology is, but my memory is there’s a mix of qualitative discourse-y analysis and quantitative-y analysis.

    This reminds me of Linda Trimble’s Who framed Belinda Stronach? National newspaper coverage of the Conservative Party of Canada’s 2004 leadership race, which looks at the way gender appears in the media’s framing of political leadership.

  5. SPC on August 3rd, 2009 at 09:55

    The main problem is the media failure to maintain a certain distance (or integrity) and lapsing into the “situation ethics” of an issue – which some would suspect is premised around the needs of “class” self interest.

    This can be seen as simply reflecting the world view of the “journalists”, but some/many see it as actually reflecting the world view of the media’s owners. Of course there may be a convergence between the two (if not a certain friction will exist).

    In the case of the Herald, their defence on the charge of bias was that they were as much supportive of the former government as opposed in their editorials. What they chose to overlook was that the opposition was equally divided in support for the former government on an issue by issue basis. So the Herald was nearly always agreeing with the opposition and was trying to ignore this fact when defending itself on the charge of bias. On an objective basis, using the argument methodology they chose to use, they were guilty as charged.

    The complication is that print media as a business (one newspaper cities) caters to the total population, not just some “class”. Thus what develops is an editorial policy in support of the “class” and a broader inclusiveness in the news reporting. This still ignores perception blindness if the newsroom if it lacks diversity/complete awareness in it’s journalist group and the impact of editorial direction on journalists when they report an issue in depth (sometimes to support an editorial policy line).

  6. Graeme on August 3rd, 2009 at 10:15

    The word ‘bias’ connotes directionality – you are biased toward a point of view and therefore away from the opposing point of view. This indicates purposiveness, and certainly the meaning with which people use ‘media bias’ is to talk about how ‘the media’ are ‘biased’ against or toward something as a political position; not by accident, but by design.

    Most of your article makes perfect sense to me. But it didn’t start well :-)

    I really don’t think bias has to occur by design. And I don’t see how any true blogger could disagree :-)

  7. Lew on August 3rd, 2009 at 10:30

    Graeme, thanks, you’re generally right.

    The sense in which ‘bias’ is typically used indicates purposiveness, which isn’t the same as demonstrating purposiveness, but nevertheless that statement is too concrete.

    I worked on a few wordings to clarify, and then just decided to delete the last phrase. I did warn it was in need of an edit :)

    L

  8. Quoth the Raven on August 3rd, 2009 at 14:32

    Lew – I haven’t read it, but have ever read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent?

  9. Lew on August 3rd, 2009 at 14:48

    QtR, yeah, and I have a reasonable amount of time for his propaganda model. However I think he (and co-author Herman) draws far too many and distant conclusions from that model to be of much use unless read very carefully and selectively indeed. By overreaching I think he has done himself a great disservice, and if his comments and conclusions had been more measured I think his work on political communication would have been taken a lot more seriously. As it is, he can (with some justification) be discounted out of hand as a raving moonbat. That’s a shame.

    If you can spare an hour, it’s very well worth reading just the introduction and opening chapter (in which the model is explicated).

    L

  10. Anita on August 3rd, 2009 at 15:10

    Maybe I should read the same sections. I have a somewhat rational loathing of reading Chomsky, I found Sound Pattern of English unnecessarily dense, and I loathed Government and Binding Theory as a whole, and his work on it made me too cross to read without regular breaks.

    I have always thought that I should read Manufacturing Consent but just the thought makes me cranky :-/ In my head it is associated with concepts like “it would be good for you” and “you would get something from it” :)

  11. Quoth the Raven on August 3rd, 2009 at 15:56

    Lew – Yeah, I think I’ve heard that criticism before.

    The only book of Chomsky’s I’ve read is Failed States. The rest I’ve read are all his essays on Anarchism, which isn’t many, collected in Chomsky on Anarchism. I disagree with him on some points on anarchism, but he’s a good writer, a good foil to the usual liberal writing on politics. I would recommend Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship.

    Anita – You got angry reading a book about linguistics?

    I recently stumbled across Little Alex in Wonderland seems like it could be good, Chomsky’s one of the contributors.

  12. Anita on August 3rd, 2009 at 16:04

    Anita – You got angry reading a book about linguistics?

    Articles, but yes. I really don’t like government and binding theory at all and I found Chomsky’s writing deliberately obscure and his arguments disingenuous. How can anyone argue that they’re finding the deep structure of language by creating a model which is intuitively wrong to native speakers of all languages?

    I should probably say that it may not have been just that I didn’t like it but it was my honours year, it was for a course I hadn’t wanted to do that was being taught badly, and for a 50% assignment I was not interested in and felt I had been railroaded into doing.

    Possibly also that I’m good at getting passionate about things :)

  13. ak on August 3rd, 2009 at 17:49

    Shorter Lew:

    No decent research has been done, so opinions on the matter are just worthless “I reckons”.

    I reckon there’s no bias in the NZ media because I read a lot of it and haven’t seen any.

    And because if the rich owners and advertisers did show bias, the poor people would start their own paper or TV station.

    Rich people aren’t going to fund this research, so we’ll never know.

    (apologies Lew, only had 5 mins and should be working)

  14. Lew on August 3rd, 2009 at 18:24

    Fair try in 5 minutes, ak.

    No decent research has been done, so opinions on the matter are just worthless “I reckons”.

    Not worthless. Just that none are worth any more than any others. So yours is as good as Redbaiter’s, and the two of you can’t do anything beyond ‘does not’/’does too’ because there’s nothing else to say.

    I reckon there’s no bias in the NZ media because I read a lot of it and haven’t seen any.

    I explicitly said there was bias, just that it wasn’t a conspiracy.

    And because if the rich owners and advertisers did show bias, the poor people would start their own paper or TV station.

    Well, I didn’t say this anywhere. In fact, if you’d read the G&M article (admittedly hard to do in 5 minutes) you’d see that one of the few ‘conservative’ US media is Fox News (shock), which emerged fairly recently to exploit the absence of a wall-to-wall conservative TV news channel (to great success). As Eric says, ‘basic hotelling model’. Seems to be the opposite case, if you accept that Fox represents ‘rich people’.

    Rich people aren’t going to fund this research, so we’ll never know.

    Doesn’t take rich people to fund it. Most of the worthwhile media research in the public domain is funded by universities.

    L

  15. Pascal's bookie on August 3rd, 2009 at 20:24

    Well I reckon there are quite a few biases.

    There’s the bias toward stupid, where the media aim any given story at the people that don’t know much about the subject. Which for any given subject is the vast majority of us.

    There is the bias toward ‘not taking sides’, where the media balance any given story by finding people that disagree with each other. In many cases this amounts to a bias towards ‘wrong’; where wrong is defined as not being supported by the research.

    There is the bias towards ‘not contradicting what I said last week’, which is related to…

    …the bias towards a narrative. The narrative will have some sort of bias, but I don’t think that that is as important. The narrative in political news is determined by what the gallery decides, collectively, to pursue. For whatever reason, (reasons that include boredom or excitement with political actors, policies etc).

    This bias towrds a narrative is related to, and supported by, the biases towards ‘not contradicting themselves’, and ‘not taking sides’.

    Once a narrative is established new events are interpreted by, and incorporated into, that narrative. Think about Bennet’s westie narrative, or Cullens ‘big meanie no tax cut’ narrative, or Winston Peters whole story arc. These are things that reporters can frame as “how it will be seen out in the boon docks” which absolves them of having a ‘view’ yet allows them to tell a narrative.

    It takes a fairly big event to break a narrative once it’s established, and when it gets broke, the actor within that narrative can get hammered quite hard. Not really through any fault of their own, other than that they stopped playing their part perhaps, or that the media got bored.

    A little bit facetious, but it’s closer to what I reckon than than any deliberate ideological bias.

    (And that US study is weird, innit?)

  16. Jan on August 3rd, 2009 at 20:45

    Very interesting and great discussion – very heartening. In the UK the Glasgow Media Group, part of Glasgow Univ. did a lot of very in depth analytical work from many years ago. The cheery concept that I recall / was reminded of by having a quick look (their website, wikipedia page and mostly on google books “Glasgow Media Group reader By John Eldridge, Greg Philo” was the bias against understanding i.e. the lack of context that propels towards simple solutions. Climate change would be a good contemporary example. Another issue about the ideological divide is to do with the way the news (and it’s need for sales) drives the over-reporting and decontextualising of some issues (crime -for example even under conditions where crime levels are falling) This isn’t bias as such or a left – right divide but the raising of levels of fear and the promotion of simplistic solutions mitigates towards ‘punishment of criminals’ and against a broader view of criminality as a problem that we all share in.

  17. Anita on August 3rd, 2009 at 21:02

    Jan,

    What does the media get from not making things understandable? In fact I guess the argument is that make things Important but incomprehensible. Am I overly cynical to say that it would take away their power as sole source of information?

    BTW you might enjoy the first chapter of Andrew Rojecki’s book that I linked to yesterday, he writes about the media’s role in keeping the population feeling too uninformed to engage in foreign policy debate.

  18. ak on August 3rd, 2009 at 21:36

    Lew in comment above:

    I explicitly said there was bias, just that it wasn’t a conspiracy.

    (ak) And because if the rich owners and advertisers did show bias, the poor people would start their own paper or TV station.

    Well, I didn’t say this anywhere.

    You sure? Lew in post:

    The strongest theoretical justification for my null position (no bias) is the market: if the media all swung a certain way it’d open up an opportunity which would quickly be filled.

    Short ak:

    Right-wing parties and policies favour the rich.

    Rich people own the media and fund it via advertising.

    The media determines elections.

    Rich people act rationally in their own interest.

    The net is overtaking the media.

    The Right knows and is getting nuttier.

    National expanded the dole.

    The Left should relax and enjoy history.

    Sea Eagles/Tigers is on.

  19. Ari on August 3rd, 2009 at 21:38

    I personally don’t think most of the media is “biased”* in the active sense you’re talking about. (with a few notable exceptions such as Paul Henry) I’m inclined to agree with Anita that perceived media bias is more about disagreeing with the media over what the norm or neutral standard is, and that this is often a matter of the media being composed of people with sometimes very similar life stories or ideologies that mostly vary between publications. Ideally you’d have multiple people working on a story to weed that sort of thing out, but the way news reporting is cost-cutting in New Zealand simply doesn’t allow for rigorous reporting, let alone significant investigative journalism.

    *The way I use this word I usually mean “imposing your worldview on the facts unconsciously”, which is very different from partisan or ideological lenses on our writing, which I would argue tends to be more conscious than unconscious.

  20. Lew on August 3rd, 2009 at 23:02

    A good discussion indeed.

    Bookie, I was hoping you’d weigh in. I agree with most of what you say, except that I don’t consider narrative to be a bias as such. Narrative is an integral feature of events, and while a media narrative is different from the actual narrative of the actual real events which took place (the relationship being similar to the ‘based on a true story’ mini-series), it remains an integral part of how humans make sense of things. With abject apologies to dead French philosophers, where narratives aren’t apparent it is necessary for people to invent them. That’s not to say that specific narratives can’t be biased or serve a particular agenda, but that the need for media agencies and actors to maintain a narrative thread isn’t unfair in and of itself. You’re right, in that a strong narrative establishes a ‘right’ way of interpreting events, which shuts down competing or heterodox interpretations; however I see other structural distortions as being much more significant in that regard – the consensus as a result of the media’s reliance on potted content being the most significant.

    Jan, Anita, Bookie,

    My read on simplification and dumbing-down (we might call it the ‘ignorance imperative’) is twofold. First and least important, my reflex: the somewhat cynical view that the media need to keep people hooked, as it were; that by giving their readership the desire and ability to become genuinely informed the readership will outgrow them, poorly-resourced and barely hauling together a decent product as they are. Most people, unfortunately, don’t get beyond this knee-jerk point.

    Second, and my rational view as a media geek, is the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery argument, named after Garrison Keillor’s shop which isn’t perfect – it doesn’t stock everything – but it’s pretty good; if Ralph’s doesn’t stock it, you can probably get along without it. The mass-audience news media – the TV newses and the hourly bulletins on radio and the daily papers – are Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. Their job (as they figure) is to tell you what you need to know, and some of what you want to know, and if they don’t tell you it, chances are you can get along in society without it. So they tell you what you need to know to avoid getting mugged in a certain part of town; to avoid blowing all your money on a bad investment; how to avoid looking like a bumpkin because you don’t know which starlet is possibly-but-probably-not pregnant to which boy-band-member. You see all the negatives here: it’s about mitigating risk more than it is about embracing opportunity. That’s the minimum. Once risk is out of the way, other things come into the picture, but time and column space is short, and the media establishment can’t be all things to all people – there are specialist media outlets for the purpose, including blogs. This, incidentally, is one of the things the existing media have done very poorly – bridge the gap between Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the rest of the world.

    But none of this is really bias in the sense I’m talking about in the OP – and while much of this sort of criticism is present in the grumbling about ‘the death of the Em Ess Em’, that grumbling is of a different nature to the paranoiac line which argues that the Dominion Post is Pravda and the NZ Herald is Izvetsiya. It just ain’t so: the distortions are scattershot, they’re not focused. The media is a chaos of complex and often conflicting imperatives, competing agendas, individual blind-spots, a lack of resources, endemic alcoholism and egotism, plain old-fashioned incompetence and a largely apathetic public who don’t look too closely anyway. Compare to actual propaganda – you’ll see what can be achieved when suitably-motivated people want to sell an idea, and just how far the media are from that.

    L

  21. SPC on August 4th, 2009 at 00:42

    Why is it editorial policy of every morning daily newspaper (Herald Dominion Press and ODT)in the country to support personal income tax cuts and smaller government and also favour whats good for business over what’s good for unions/workers wages?

  22. Lew on August 4th, 2009 at 08:44

    SPC, two things – first, I don’t think you can make a robust evidence-based argument that it is; and second, if you can, many of those policy directions have been common to governments on both sides for the past generation. These are part of the ‘political backdrop’ to which I referred in the OP. It’s hard to sheet that back to the media.

    L

  23. SPC on August 4th, 2009 at 21:01

    It is the editorial policy of every morning daily newspaper (Herald, Dominion, Press and ODT) to support personal income tax cuts and smaller government and also favour what’s good for business over what’s good for unions/workers wages.

    Given you dismiss any proof to this effect, even if it is offered, I won’t waste my time demonstrating what is obvious to those who have read their editorials over the past decades.

    many of those policy directions have been common to governments on both sides for the past generation. These are part of the ‘political backdrop’ to which I referred in the OP. It’s hard to sheet that back to the media.

    So you are claiming that change in society led the editorial advocacy?

    Have you heard the term manufactured consent – where the people are led to accept change, whether it is in their interest or not.

    The direction is to the right in economic policy.

    Apart from 1984-1990 under international pressure because of debt, and to correct over regulation by Muldoon, Labour was not involved in this trend.

    The media editorial line was simply the message of the ideological/political right. The political backdrop/class issue is that the media was not representative (even less so its editorial group) of the wider society in their world view and self interest.

  24. Lew on August 4th, 2009 at 22:24

    SPC,

    Given you dismiss any proof to this effect, even if it is offered, I won’t waste my time demonstrating what is obvious to those who have read their editorials over the past decades.

    This is precisely the fallacy I objected to in the OP.

    The trouble is that there is no proof. I haven’t dismissed it because I’ve never been offered it because there isn’t any. You have your ‘I reckon’, I have mine, and Redbaiter has his. We all know which we think is right; who can prove it? At present, I’m the only one calling for proof – the two of you don’t think you need any. I don’t buy it. I’m inclined to believe your ‘I reckon’ over ‘Baiter’s, but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m also inclined to believe that the US media had a conservative bias, but the study linked in the OP indicates that it’s not so. I have methodological problems with the study, but I’m not prepared to discard it out of hand.

    So you are claiming that change in society led the editorial advocacy?

    Social views and media views form a feedback loop. Both inform the other. The media pitch their positions to the market so the market favours their product, and the market is informed by the media and internalises their positions. You can’t really argue determinism except in isolated cases.

    Have you heard the term manufactured consent – where the people are led to accept change, whether it is in their interest or not.

    I’m very familiar indeed with this branch of communications theory. I’m not discounting it, as I mentioned above in a reply to QtR; I just don’t think it answers the question on its own.

    The direction is to the right in economic policy. Apart from 1984-1990 under international pressure because of debt, and to correct over regulation by Muldoon, Labour was not involved in this trend.

    I don’t accept this. Rogernomics changed NZ’s ideological equilibrium for ever, normalising markets, small government, privatisation, and the predominance of capital over labour (ostensibly in the best interest of labour). Governments of both sides since have marched to these tunes, favouring free trade and open markets, labour flexibility, government-as-a-business, and a whithering (in real terms) of the welfare state (or re-redistribution from the lower to the middle classes via such means as WFF). Labour governments have marched far more slowly, but march they have. It has been an electoral necessity, and while I accept that the Clark government made some progress toward reconfiguring that political equilibrium, going back to pre-Rogernomics is simply not an option, electorally speaking. Nobody repealed his reforms; they are part of the furniture.

    The media editorial line was simply the message of the ideological/political right. The political backdrop/class issue is that the media was not representative (even less so its editorial group) of the wider society in their world view and self interest.

    More simplistic ideas. What of the fact that journalists tend to be more politically liberal than the population at large? Surely if it’s determinism you’re after, that’s it there?

    L

  25. SPC on August 4th, 2009 at 23:37

    Of course there is proof. Whether the editorials support tax cuts or do not, is not a matter of opinion it’s a matter of fact. They do. You are confusing the objective with the subjective.

    Similarly there was favour for the ECA and opposition to the ERA. As these two issues are associated with the major determinants of difference between the two major political parties, that is instructive.

    – The media editorial line was simply the message of the ideological/political right. The political backdrop/class issue is that the media was not representative (even less so its editorial group) of the wider society in their world view and self interest –

    More simplistic ideas. What of the fact that journalists tend to be more politically liberal than the population at large? Surely if it’s determinism you’re after, that’s it there?

    Dismissing anothers opinion as “simplistic ideas” is not a serious argument Lew (is the claim of “intellectual class” superiorty supposed to be provocative)?

    Journalists maybe more socially liberal than the general public but more politically liberal?

    Anyhow I was referring to the editorial policy of the newspapers – and on from that the background of those who contribute to it. They would generally be advantaged by tax cuts over a fuller funding of public service provision. That is not however a definition of political liberalism as there is no difference to the self interest of the political conservative.

  26. SPC on August 5th, 2009 at 00:04

    The direction is to the right in economic policy. Apart from 1984-1990 under international pressure because of debt, and to correct over regulation by Muldoon, Labour was not involved in this trend.

    I don’t accept this. Rogernomics changed NZ’s ideological equilibrium for ever, normalising markets, small government, privatisation, and the predominance of capital over labour (ostensibly in the best interest of labour). Governments of both sides since have marched to these tunes, favouring free trade and open markets, labour flexibility, government-as-a-business, and a whithering (in real terms) of the welfare state (or re-redistribution from the lower to the middle classes via such means as WFF). Labour governments have marched far more slowly, but march they have. It has been an electoral necessity, and while I accept that the Clark government made some progress toward reconfiguring that political equilibrium, going back to pre-Rogernomics is simply not an option, electorally speaking. Nobody repealed his reforms; they are part of the furniture.

    Lew, Labour has only been in government once since 1984-1990, from 1999 to 2008.

    In that period only has the extent to which Labour signed on to the rightwing trend finally been made manifest and so has the extent to which it pulled the National Party back to the centre to win power in 2008 (the ERA, rising minimum wage, 4 weeks leave, no market rents, super at 65% or above the net average wage, no asset sales, accepting WFF and the establishment of Kiwi Bank and the government stake in Air New Zealand and ownership of Rail etc)

    I reject the idea that WFF was a transfer from the poor to the middle class. It is in concept, the sort of social insurance via public delivery, which is traditional for Labour. The wider society provides help to those raising up children – singles who do so will later benefit themselves and older couples are helping to ensure that their and their neighbours grandchildren are not raised up in poverty.

    WFF has become a scheme to help poor working families combined with a tax credit form of targeted tax cut to middle class families. This makes the concept more universal and prevents the sort of marginalisation that occurs when only a minority receive public support. National knows very well why they opposed its conception and its continuance. It’s out of the traditions of the Labour Party before 1984 and sired by 1999-2008 Labour.

  27. Lew on August 5th, 2009 at 11:22

    SPC,

    Of course there is proof. Whether the editorials support tax cuts or do not, is not a matter of opinion it’s a matter of fact. They do. You are confusing the objective with the subjective.

    If there’s proof, then where is it? Show me the data.

    There is material which might reveal proof, but without research that is not proof itself. This is an elementary distinction: anecdotal reflections are not the same as data. That is the standard of proof I’m referring to. It may well be that your assertion is borne out, but until you’ve done the research, it’s not proven.

    You’ve limited the scope of the issue from ‘the media is biased’ to something resembling ‘the editorial position of the main papers are biased with regard to the ERA/ECA and tax cuts’; a subset within a subset of coverage, and limited to two issues. And still you can’t demonstrate that bias exists – you only have assertions, which as deeply as you might believe them, and as much as you think they’re self-evident, are not supported by any sort of actual evidence beyond ‘I reckons’. And even if you did prove the assertion regarding newspaper editors, tax cuts and employment relations, it wouldn’t go very far to proving the larger claim that the media in general are biased, because you’ve cherry-picked your scope and topic of inquiry. Add to which, editorial coverage and policy is not news, and does not reflect news. Read G&M’s remarks about the schism within the Washington Post, whose news department refers to its editorial department as ‘Nazis’ for being so reactionary and whose news coverage comes out liberal overall. The premise that ‘the editors are biased’ does not follow to the conclusion ‘therefore the medium’s coverage is biased’. The assertion simply does not support itself. It might prove to be correct, but to find out you have to do the research.

    As to Working for Families: I get it. I have a postgraduate education and a good, reasonably well-paying job. Not to say I’m not happy to receive it – it’s really important in that it allows my wife to focus on bringing up our daughter in the best way possible. But if it’s not middle-class welfare I’m not sure what is.

    L

  28. Anita on August 5th, 2009 at 11:30

    Lew,

    Aren’t you arguing a little too strongly for positivism and only positivism?You seem to be saying that the only thing that matters is proof, and the only kind of proof is the kind of quantitative big set data analysis that positivism loves.

    IMO the experience of newspaper readers should count for something. It might not be the same as the kind of research you’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean it’s without value.

  29. Lew on August 5th, 2009 at 11:42

    Anita,

    And I’m not saying experience doesn’t have value – I’m saying it’s not proof, and for the reasons I’ve outlined in the OP and exhaustively above, it’s not very reliable. I’m also not arguing for strictly quantitative analysis – that won’t capture political affect or bias in any useful sense. What’s needed to settle the matter is qualitative analysis undertaken by rigorous means. Anything less than that may still be useful, but will only be indicative. Lots of indications can still amount to a burden of proof, but the trouble is that people on both sides show no signs of testing their deeply-held beliefs about media bias, so little such research gets done.

    Ultimately, yes, I am arguing for positivism as the only means by which the matter may be agreed upon between audiences who differ so strongly. Until then, it’s just sniping from the ramparts.

    L

  30. SPC on August 5th, 2009 at 21:27

    Lew

    I made the limited assertion because it is openly admitted by the media concerned – in their editorial commentary.

    As for proof of it only being established by research, this is not actually necessary – if the papers were asked do they prefer lower taxes and smaller government they would say yes. They are not shy about stating their position after all. Similarly they would agree that they have a pro business line over a pro union one.

    As to the wider issue of media bias, that is a reflection of the sector of society (and that society) from which journalists come and is not unrelated to the editorial line. That is where the research could be done – by showing how differentiation between newspaper editorial view and news coverage was a function of the different backgrounds of the journalists.

    PS

    Like Super WFF includes the middle class – this is what protects the poor in their old age and when raising families (if the cover only included them it would be less and they would be in poverty).

    The right would rather abandon the poor families and reduce the rate of Super (ala Shipley and the CPI increase only so it went under 65% net average wage) to maximise tax cuts.

  31. Anita on August 5th, 2009 at 21:41

    Lew,

    If we paid an equal allowance for every child, would we call it welfare?

  32. Lew on August 5th, 2009 at 22:06

    SPC,

    All of the research of which I’m aware has found journalists to be more ‘liberal’ than ‘conservative’ (I use the US terminology since that’s where most of the research has been done). Most US research (limited though it is) similarly finds that the media have a liberal bias. The two are in accord; although US liberals think the media is dead-set against them just as you do.

    Just ignoring for the moment that I don’t put a great deal of stock in ideological self-interest arguments, this one (that the pro-business anti-union tone of newspaper coverage is due to journalists’ self-interest) seems to require one of the following: (a) journalists’ ideological positions (therefore self-interest) are different here than in the US (might be so – but I’d be surprised);
    (b) journalists are generally ideologically ‘left’ here as in the US but somehow their self-interest leads them to produce coverage which is less-‘left’;
    (c) journalists are generally left, but editors and media owners exert greater control here than in the US market, twisting coverage toward their self-interest.

    None of those ring true for me as a central factor. I think journalists are generally liberal, and I think the prime determinants of what gets covered and how are news and audience appeal on which (nominally liberal) journalists and (nominally conservative) editors and owners tend to agree, not ideological discipline imposed from the top. This will vary from section to section, topic to topic and story to story, but I think it generally holds true.

    Moreover, any approach at getting to the causes of media bias which sheets all the responsibility back to purposive intra-media factors such as the political opinions of journalists, the editors who watch over them or the owners who determine their output misses two-thirds of the picture – audience preference and supply chain. Audience preference is somewhat nebulous because demand is to a very large extent determined by supply – people like the sort of news they like because that’s what they’re used to, etc. However I think there’s a great deal more ideological-bias mileage to be made by critiquing the supply chain which determines how editors decide what stories to devote resources to; how journalists research and write them; and how they end up going to print.

    As I said in the OP, more than half of all stories published in UK newspaper coverage is partially or wholly derived from PR or communications professionals whose job it is to get media to run their angle. Businesses and entities representing the interests of capital tend to have much greater resources to devote to developing media relationships, developing and pitching quality publication-ready material, slicker and more photogenic spokespeople who know their lines better and are available for an interview at a moment’s notice. It makes some sense that this copy, these perspectives and those images will make it into the finished product. This isn’t really the fault of journalists, who are overworked, underpaid and under immense pressure both internally and externally – it’s no reflection on their personal political views or the views of their masters; it’s just how the supply chain operates.

    The golden rule of getting into press is make it easy. That’s why we have so much media coverage about dog attacks, violent crime and sex scandals – there’s usually little work required to put the story together, you just report the facts and let peoples’ fears and imaginations do the rest.

    It’s a complicated picture. It’s not simple. Anyone who tries to argue it is hasn’t looked closely enough, and that’s what I’m arguing against here.

    L

  33. Lew on August 5th, 2009 at 22:10

    Anita,

    If everyone, regardless of income or personal circumstances, got (say) $50 per week per child? I think that stretches the definition somewhat. I’m not sure I see what you’re driving at, though.

    L

  34. Anita on August 5th, 2009 at 22:41

    Lew,

    About 6 weeks ago I figured out I can’t actually put my finger on what welfare is, what makes something welfare. When I saw your comment about WFF being middle-class welfare and I wondered what makes it feel like welfare as it is constructed as targeted tax relief for families with kids. I asked whether a universal payment for families with kids would feel like welfare. It didn’t, I guess that means to feel like welfare something has to have some kind of targeting based on wealth/deprivation?

    Short answer – I was off topic and vaguely mulling over something unrelated :)

  35. SPC on August 5th, 2009 at 22:55

    Lew, the American terms liberal and conservative are moot. Journalists are generally well educated and often graduates, this sector of society is not representative of the total society.

    International studies of the liberal left conservative right divide ignore the reality that there are people who simply either cannot/do not afford media (print or pay TV) or find it without meaning to their own world.

    Thus the same can be said of those consuming media.

    PS WFF is not a redistribution from the poor to the middle class as you claimed, it is the attempt to deliver tax credits in a form which would result in the middle class supporting a boost in income for poor families.

  36. Lew on August 6th, 2009 at 10:46

    SPC,

    I begin to see what you’re driving at. This is, again, a very small subset of the wider issue.

    As I remarked to Anita about identity biased, I think it’s overstretching ‘ideological bias’ to include such matters.

    Of course, people who have a job are going to be somewhat disconnected from people who don’t; people with an education likewise; people who think/write/argue/critique for a living with people who don’t. That’s beyond the scope of the sort of bias I’m referring to. Not to say it’s irrelevant, just that it’s not really central to the question of media bias in the way it’s normally discussed. It’s also another fairly drastic limitation of the argument’s scope.

    I’d also dispute the question of engagement. Referring back to the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery model, many of the mainstays of news and media coverage are as relevant to the poor as to the right – crime disproportionately effects lower socio-economic groups, for instance, and changes to government policy often have the most severe impacts on those at the margins. And all but the very poorest are a source of media revenue, via advertising – and media choices reflect that targeting.

    L

  37. SPC on August 6th, 2009 at 21:17

    On the identity bias, there is a distinct lack of role for any Maori in the role of columnist in the mainstream print media (years ago when Tapu Misa first began at the Herald I actually wrote and asked her to cover that gap once in a while – notably she did a piece on the Bennett and the beneficiaries this week to inform people, whereas political commentators merely noted Bennett did well because there was no focus on how much more people got in WFF than the two women did on the DPB and a diversion from the policy choice of the TIA “hand up” being taken away).

  38. Lew on August 7th, 2009 at 14:11

    Sorry, SPC, I missed this in the flood of comments about Keisha Castle-Hughes.

    Yes the relative absence of Māori in print is quite significant. Partly I think this has to do with audience – I believe that Māori readerships of newspapers are very low, while they are much more strongly engaged with broadcast, where Māori are more strongly represented. There are strong, credible Māori voices like Adam Gifford and Eru Rerekura of Waatea News, the outstanding Julian Wilcox on Native Affairs, TVNZ’s similarly-excellent Shane Taurima, and the regular stable of presenters on those and other media, even if they are underutilised. Even less prominent are Pacific and Asian voices – Melissa Lee’s Asia Downunder was one of the few dedicated products in the mainstream English-language media.

    The feedback loop, again – power minorities don’t engage with media which don’t represent their views, so the media see no need to cater to a demographic which doesn’t consume their products anyhow. Interested to hear from anyone with more specific experience of this; while it’s not ideological bias per se, it is important context to the questions about that bias.

    L

  39. Anita on August 7th, 2009 at 16:45

    The feedback loop, again – power minorities don’t engage with media which don’t represent their views, so the media see no need to cater to a demographic which doesn’t consume their products anyhow. Interested to hear from anyone with more specific experience of this; while it’s not ideological bias per se, it is important context to the questions about that bias.

    It’s a stabilising influence; I’d argue an indicator of an ideological bias toward the status quo. No?

  40. Lew on August 10th, 2009 at 11:27

    Anita, yes and no. Certainly an indicator of status-quo bias, but whether it’s ideological depends on your definition of the term. It’s too pat to say ‘status quo bias is inherently ideological’, because it leads people to beg the question of what ideology/ies are favoured. While there’s clearly an argument to be made that the status quo in NZ includes Capitalism, therefore the media is biased towards that broad set of ideologies, but there are also strong social democratic, social justice/civil libertarian and environmentalist strands within the NZ political mainstream as well; these must likewise be supported by status quo bias. To say anything meaningful about the nature of the status quo bias, I think we need to look more closely at how the media interacts with the status quo – rather than just assuming that it picks an ideological side.

    L

  41. gingercrush on August 10th, 2009 at 23:43

    Very late to this though have read some of the comments (they’re too intellectually wordy for my liking). But as I was writing this post at The Standard http://www.thestandard.org.nz/now-for-the-spin/comment-page-1/#comment-152850 and this particular bit: Our media is very prone to taking every parties spin of things and because National is the largest party and is the government, they always get given more exposure than other parties. it got me thinking.

    I’m not 100% sure that is how the media operates. Indeed in a way I unconciously wrote that particular thing. But surely that would explain bias to a great degree. When Labour was polling very high while Bill English and Jenny Shipley were leaders of National, Labour seemed to get way more exposure. While both English and Shipley tended to be placed in negative stories. Since Brash’s time as leader, the balance seemed to tip towards casting both Labour and National equally with National slightly more negative (wouldn’t be surprising since Brash was his own worst enemy) while post-Brash tended to paint Labour negatively while National and John Key were painted positively.

    So what we were seeing was that one political spectrum was able to get a greater hold of the spin and the media we’re in now is set up to take much of that spin in and regurgitate it. National is seen by many to be more bias because typically it’s been able to get the greater spin out there. That being its the larger party and currently has more support than the other side while Labour had that prior to Don Brash.

    Of course the right-wing blogs often play the bias card as well. Because what they’re reading tends to be spin by the left that has made it into the media environment. So maybe the reason we see so many claims by both sides of the political spectrum of bias in the media. Is that both are prone to respond and absorb the spin they vehemently disagree.

    —-

    BTW Lew you should do a post about spin and PR in the media sometime.

    … I forgot how horrible the captcha you guys use and what The Standard use to have is.

Leave a Reply

Name: (required)
Email: (required) (will not be published)
Website:
Comment: