Thursday, June 08, 2006

On Structural Media Bias

Ran across an underrated take on the question of media bias today—the author argues that the news industry's prejudices stem not from liberal J-school indoctrination or from unconscious right-wing storylines, but from its own explicit bylaws. Andrew Cline of Missouri State University's argument crystallizes several inchoate media musings that have been floating around in my head for awhile now, the crux of which is that the "structural biases" of journalism tend to predict the ways in which raw political information will be processed, packaged and delivered better than any alleged ideological favoritism. By structural biases Cline means that the capitalist nature of major US media organizations leads them to, inter alia, favor the negative over the positive, the concrete over the abstract, the timely over the ongoing, the unusual over the usual, and to impose narrative wherever possible without regard to propriety. Perhaps most importantly, journalists take every opportunity to promote and reinforce a pro-establishment world view (whether or not this is avoidable is up for debate). They tend only to discuss a narrow, mainstream-focused range of social and political possibilities, and they pass on that blinkered view to their customers, most of whom remain none the wiser.

A couple points came to mind while reading the piece: first, that the status quo bias, while pervasive, doesn't appear to apply to certain types of stories. For example, despite the fact that poll after poll indicates that at least 50% of Americans do not believe in evolution, journalists continue to report news that flatly contradicts the beliefs of this non-trivial contingent. Similarly, the dire tone of recent global warming coverage is at odds with the national majority opinion on the issue. The crucial distinction between these two cases is that the press stands a far greater chance of influencing views on the latter, a complex scientific phenomenon with few religious implications, than on the former, over which most Americans are incorrigibly resistant to persuasion. Such considerations can help us moderate the amount of indignation we decide to muster at the myriad ways in which amorphous facts are hammered and sculpted to fit journalistic conventions.

Secondly, the insight that the press's most pressing bias is structural rather than political suggests alternative strategies for would-be media reformers. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) insisting that news organizations attempt to balance themselves ideologically, perhaps we should concentrate on cultivating a new journalism free of some of the old school's more restrictive principles. Unapologetically partisan blogs offer a hint of what a broader definition of journalism might include, but their potential will remain limited as long as most of them rely upon the newspapers, TV, and radio for raw material. Blogs and other journalistic dissidents will not comprise a true alternative to the likes of CNN and the New York Times until they accrue the resources necessary to rake muck at the same level, which won't happen until enough people get sufficiently incensed at the establishment to start materially supporting innovative news ventures. And until we reach that point, we will continue to deserve the media we get.