Monday, March 30, 2009

Thinking about media and bias 

Saturday's Final Word featured Society for Professional Journalists and St. Cloud Times reporter Dave Aeikens, the podcast of which is now available (link when it's live.) Following on our discussion of the press restrictions of the Minnesota Legislature, Dave provided us with examples where online and "legacy" journalists (hey, if it works for toxic assets, why not?) are working together to blur the lines between who is a journalist and who is not. In fact, he was adamant that the line could not be drawn.

In the second half we turned to the idea of media bias; I am one who does not think there is groupthink in the media (Janet might disagree with me here, but read through to be sure), but that writers tend to reflect individual preferences and are reinforced in doing so when they think their audience will favor. Some of the economic research that convinces me of this is a paper by Mullainathan and Shleifer (2005 AER, ungated copy here, hereinafter MS.) It was their example of the two stories on the unemployment rate that I read to Dave. I think there's slanting of stories, which as MS point out can be a rational response to a biased readership. The market for the StarTribune contains the congressional district of Keith Ellison, so you write stories Ellison supporters would like. That's not bias, that's responding to incentives.

With that in mind, consider this opinion piece written by Randy Krebs in the Sunday St. Cloud paper. He illustrates his belief that he has intolerant readers by reporting on phone calls he receives after the paper reports on "Rep. Steve Gottwalt�s bill requiring people to remove headgear for their driver�s license photo." A few sentences later he writes, "A couple of different readers called separately to express support for Gottwalt�s initial idea." Mr. Krebs takes the rest of the column to call these two callers intolerant. Wouldn't a reader think that by extension Krebs thinks Gottwalt is, too?

Except that the paper reported weeks ago (in an article co-authored by Dave Aeikens, just to tie this together) that after meeting with Muslim groups, who felt the law was discriminatory against their religious practices, Gottwalt revised the bill to strike a better balance. This point appears nowhere in the Krebs opinion unless you ask why Krebs called it "Gottwalt's initial idea." It seems to me Krebs was aware of that change, but because it was inconvenient to his story he made his way quickly around that point to get back to attacking the droogs who dared ring his phone.

So is that bias? I don't think so; even if it is, Mr. Krebs is certainly entitled in an opinion piece to express it. I suspect though it's a bit more like slanting; there is nothing false about what Krebs has written, but he's in need of props to tell his story of religious intolerance and found these callers handy. It would muddy his story to remind people of Gottwalt's revision, so that doesn't make it into the op-ed.

Dave argues in the podcast that without newspapers bloggers have nothing to say. But newspapers in fact present us with something to do: to demonstrate slanting, and yes, re-slant for our readers. Since it appears more liberals self-select into careers in journalism (see for example here and here for evidence, for starters), those who want a different slant are served by both Fox and by center-right bloggers.

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