Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Classic Media-Bias Chestnut Finds New Relevance

The media-bias debate traces its history back to long before the advent of the blogosphere, as Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam details in a profile of a 1985 psychological study investigating perceptions of bias in news coverage of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. Pro- and anti-Israeli partisans were shown identical feeds of televised war coverage and asked, among other things, to judge its objectivity and estimate its persuasive strength among hypothesized neutral viewers. The former group judged the coverage as significantly biased against Israel and more likely to sway undecided parties against the state's actions, while the latter group expressed the exact opposite points of view. The study found further that the more knowledgeable a partisan was regarding the facts of the war, the stronger her allegations of bias were. The researchers concluded that this was because an expert command of the facts allows tendentious individuals to find more specific instances where journalists fail to offer illuminating context that might justify their preferred side's actions. The full study is available here courtesy of Kevin Drum at Political Animal.

This research confirms once again that political diehards only feign interest in evenhandedness when news stories contradict their existing opinions: what they really look for in the news is pure confirmation varnished with the reassuring sheen of journalistic objectivity (think "fair and balanced"). But in all our travels throughout the blogosphere, we must never forget that at present, a plurality of Americans do not identify strongly as "liberal" or "conservative" and consequently still look to the media to offer coverage without an agenda. Blog traffic reports have shown that the market for slanted journalism is robust but still lags far behind demand for traditional media, and that's counting print, TV, and online sources. Whether or not the press incumbents will continue to dominate in the future turns on the extent to which Americans will converge or diverge in their political beliefs: more convergence will lead to the preservation of the status quo, while less will give the advantage to news sources nimble enough to capitalize on a fracturing set of assumptions. Personally, my money's on the latter situation, but only time will tell.