“Beating the Point Spread” and Other Press Biases

Steven Den Beste posts a thoughtful memo about the press and its public role. He makes a lot of sense but there are a couple of areas in which his comments might usefully be expanded.

His discussion of the “mission” of the press lists informing citizens “so they can vote wisely” as a goal. It is indeed a valid goal but it’s incomplete. A fuller definition might be based on the press’s traditional function as a check on government. The idea is, or used to be, that government is concentrated power and needs to be watched closely to keep it accountable. This is a more extensive charter than that of merely helping citizens to vote wisely.

Modern professional journalists often see their main role, quite differently and incompatibly from the traditional one, as being about encouraging that which they see as social reform with government as its principal agent. They tend to under emphasize the risks and costs of concentrations of governmental power, and to over emphasize threats posed by what they see as private concentrations of power (principally, corporate America, organized Christianity and grass-roots political conservatism).

This is where Steven’s comparison of journalists to defense lawyers breaks down. The defense attorney may be defending a reprehensible person, but the role of the defense attorney is extremely important to the integrity of our legal system. The same might also be said of journalists if they sought to expose abuses in all parts of our society. However, it is not true for journalists like Mike Wallace, whose zeal for aggressively revealing the secrets about some institutions (the U.S. military, corporations, the Catholic Church), and not others (regulatory agencies, lefty non profits, the UN), makes clear that their political agenda comes before investigating abuses of power.

Most Americans aren’t going to trust big-time journalism unless journalists drop their activist pretensions. Mainstream journalists could do valuable work, both for the society and their own careers, as government watchdogs, but until more of them become serious about doing it (i.e., willing to leave out the reformist bias) they will be overtaken increasingly by bloggers and other amateurs, especially on the local level. In the meantime, the mainstream press is devolving into a combination of conventional entertainment and political theater, all of it remote from the reality that most Americans know.

As for beating the point spread, Steven is right to note this example of selection bias in journalists, who tend to frame everything as a horse race where relative standings matter more than finishing times. Point-spread framing is sometimes appropriate for political news, but not to the exclusion of discussion about ideas and arguments. One of the ironies here is that while the mainstream press tends to use point-spread framing inappropriately for political news, they rarely use it for economic news, where it can be highly informative. We can watch the news and learn that Candidate X is polling 10% ahead of Candidate Y, but not hear crucial information about their respective positions that might help to explain what’s going on. Meanwhile, on the same news show, we are told that stocks rallied on the Government’s quarterly GNP report showing Z% growth, as if the absolute percentage, and not the spread between that number and the prior expectation, which is often more significant, were all that mattered.

I think that part of the problem with journalism is like that of public education. Institutions in both of these areas tend to recruit from pools of applicants who are certified by educational processes that a lot of able people wouldn’t put up with. So the ranks of conventional journalism and the public schools end up being populated disproportionately with people who are either second-rate or share the political or ideological agendas of the schools that trained them.

3 thoughts on ““Beating the Point Spread” and Other Press Biases”

  1. I think that there’s something to the last paragraph–I went to Northwestern which has one of the better journalism schools out there. I majored in a real major, by the way. But in my opinion, the real problem with both ed and journalism schools is that they don’t actually teach people about the things that they teach/write about. So it’s very possible to get, say, an economics reporter who knows absolutely nothing about economics and is even blissfully ignorant about what supply and demand are. At least at Northwestern, the ideology seems to be more self-selected than imposed from the students I’ve met, and they’re in a program that trains people wonderfully but doesn’t encourage critical thinking.

  2. I wrote this last year. Actually sent it to den Beste, but I don’t think he read it.

    This “Bush Lied” campaign is very frustrating. With the simplicity and clarity of the statement and context, it is amazing that any attention would be given to it at all. I’m curious to know how television news ratings are doing. I am a news junky that can no longer bear to watch/read the news; I doubt that I’m the only one. Diversity of content has been replaced by a dichotomy of opinions. In an industry where the complaint once was that news happens all the time and it’s unfortunate that not all news can make the headlines, it’s odd that we so often find ourselves suffocated by the issue of the day (Kobe, Lacy, Quagmire, Monika…). In a media culture that claims to be unbiased, it’s also odd that so much editorial decision is made to dedicate so much space/air-time and investigative resource to particular issues (not representative of their importance/relevance). I believe in liberal bias (though, I do not believe it to be intentional in most cases). The numbers speak for themselves: the disproportionate number of liberals in media makes the case clear (as well as the perceptions of the audience). A definite conflict of interest. An ethical dilemma at least. I believe the situation needs reform.

    It seems the prevalence of liberal journalists and editors gives a liberal slant to the selection of topics/stories, the direction of investigations, and even the presentation of stories. This is frustrating for those who often disagree with socialist views. Most view this slant with indifference. For those who are liberal, this goes unnoticed. The problem however is more complex. The liberal hierarchy grew with the industry and can’t simply be changed, and adding a “conservative” counter-voice mostly fills space and further distorts reality. The drive for ratings also complicates the situation.

    Liberals identify-with and seek-out their own, making it difficult for varying opinions to enter these institutions. Obviously, getting in the door takes adhering to liberal standards, and journalists are categorized even before their careers begin. In college, liberal views are the norm and dominate many fields to the point where other views are unwelcome and drive open-minded people to fields with less personal critique. Faculty members are even more dominantly liberal than their students. They usually simply tolerate “conservatives” and rarely recognize their merits, leaving top honors to those who affirm their own beliefs. The diehards who press on in writing gain their experience away from the mainstream in small conservative publications where any recognition or honors given are usually discounted by mainstream institutions. This also has the effect of grouping “conservative” journalists together to align themselves with extremists. It’s also my understanding (let me know if I’m wrong) that entry-level journalism pays poorly. This would discourage those from humble backgrounds, without strong support, from choosing this path (just as highly valued Pro Bono work experience maintains elitism in law: it’s great to have… if you can afford to do it). The system is structured to progressively become more “Progressive”. However, as liberal bias dominates the media more and more, frustration and conservative backlash grow. Enter Fox News.

    When I first became aware of Fox News, I found relief from the ever-increasing liberal pressure. The content seemed more diverse and Fox explored more angles (those that the rest of the media did, and often-ignored logical ones). I also liked that the bias was blatant rather than subversive, and actual content was easily distinguished even by the simpleminded. The sensationalism was also attractive in that the fast pace, sounds, and graphics helped keep my attention. Fox seemed to add a little balance to an overwhelming lefty bias. When I first watched, bias at Fox was usually appropriately placed, speaking over guests when they dodged questions or spewed propaganda irrelevant to the discussion. Statements of opinion were generally just a clause. But, the drama drew attention and also attracted as a portion of its audience people who wholly identified with extremist conservative remarks and editorials. Lately it seems that empty-headed conservative cheerleaders, such as Fox and Friends, have replaced content with point-of-view. With sensationalism and contrariness being the obvious breadwinners (nothing new), commentary became more boisterous and more extreme. Views became more important than the facts and reason behind them.

    Now, Fox News is hardly the only network to latch onto sensationalism and polar commentary. In the spirit of competition, other networks also air counter-point editorial shows and irate conservative personalities to bolster ratings. In trying to emulate Fox, CNN put on conservative caricatures like Tucker Carlson and Michael Savage. These personalities (probably stereotypes the editors and execs hold) lampoon conservatives rather than represent them, and the lack of liberal equivalents makes these liberal news networks appear conservative. The liberal dominated industry seeks out conservatives and places them in front of the camera to hide a void instead of working towards a more moderate, diverse staff. The result is that we are presented news with liberal bias followed by cartoonish conservative editorials and counter-point shows.

    Adding “conservatives” to networks polarizes liberals and conservatives in addition to balancing bias. Generally, in complex and well-established systems, to change a trend, it’s best to do so subtly. Changing the state of the system directly does little to the trend, but can accelorate it toward the end or steady state. The long-term trend is what needs to be changed. This requires opening minds.

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