you got bias in my media butter!

In the comments here, EgregiousCharles raises some questions about media bias.

First, I should point out that the UCLA study he references has been largely debunked. Their methods were statistically inept, they ignored an entire field of scholarly research in the arena of media studies, and they were funded by conservative thinktanks.

Media Matters has a good run-down. But anyways, on to his comment:

This is a danger primarily in news outlets which pretend to objectivity, not blogs which don’t. It’s caused by newsrooms that are remarkable enclaves of like-mindedness (rather than any sort of conspiracy or even collusion), which defeats honest attempts at objectivity by journalists.

Here we’re mostly in agreement, however: Honest attempts at “objectivity” encourage media outlets to become enclaves of like-mindedness (indeed, that’s the whole point), but I’ll come back to this.

The problem is that bias is in the news itself (especially in news selection), rather than just in editorials. It’s primarily harmful to readers who believe in the objectivity. If, for example, the Times in New York Times, LA Times, and Washington Times were replaced with Democrat, Democrat, and Republican respectively, it would be much more honest and less harmful.

Much of the work (the same work which the UCLA study authors didn’t seem to be aware of) analyzing the media disagrees with the insinuation that those publications (or any others) are skewed towards the left or the right. For example, this paper:

A meta-analysis considered 59 quantitative studies containing data concerned with partisan media bias in presidential election campaigns since 1948. Types of bias considered were gatekeeping bias, which is the preference for selecting stories from one party or the other; coverage bias, which considers the relative amounts of coverage each party receives; and statement bias, which focuses on the favorability of coverage toward one party or the other. On the whole, no significant biases were found for the newspaper industry. Biases in newsmagazines were virtually zero as well. However, meta-analysis of studies of television network news showed small, measurable, but probably insubstantial coverage and statement biases.

To truly understand the Problem with the Media, it helps to consider how The Media as we know it stays in business: advertising. Money makes the world go round, and sadly, journalism is not an exception to this rule. The evolution of Big Media in this country has been one gravitating towards a finely honed centrism – a perspective that is least likely to offend any potential viewers or readers (read: advertising targets). The point right smack dab in the middle of the poles of American politics is where a media outlet is likely to offend the least amount of viewers, and that’s precisely where they want to be. To even imagine, much less claim an over-arching liberal or conservative bias in any large corporate media company is laughable – it’d be bad for business. There’s niche media, of course (e.g. Mother Jones), but they make no pretense to “objectivity”. As EgregiousCharles notes, it’s only those who aspire to “objectivity” that are dangerous, though I think we disagree on why. I’ve talked about the myth of journalistic objectivity, with regard to Nashville is Talking, even, so it all comes full circle. “Objectivity” is not about adherence to truth or facts – it’s about depoliticization in order to “put butts in the seats”, so to speak.

Alterman’s book, along with The Politics of Mass Media are required reading for anyone wanting to really understand how we wound up with the media we have today – an establishment that hopefully will be shaken to its foundations in years to come, with the “blogosphere” being but one step along the way.