Give the Customers What They Want: Bias

This study, reported in the New York Times today, should not be surprising, but in today’s incredibly politicized media environment, it counts as news.  The University of Chicago has learned that a newspaper’s political biases reflect the belief systems of their readers. 

The authors calculated the ideal partisan slant for each paper, if all it cared about was getting readers, and they found that it looked almost precisely like the one for the actual newspaper. As Dr. Shapiro put it in an interview, “The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will maximize their sales.”

On one hand that sounds a little mercenary. On the other hand, there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.

Indeed, the study found that the views of the owner had no significant effect on the slant of the newspaper. The partisanship of corporate donations from the owner had no bearing on the slant of the news coverage in the paper. The slant of a newspaper group’s other newspapers had no bearing, either. The New York Times Company’s newspaper in Spartanburg, S.C., for example, had the same slant as other newspapers in South Carolina that the company did not own.

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. The papers basically reflect what their readers want to hear.

The study determined which papers were liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, based on the words they used.  A liberal newspaper was more likely to use the words “oil companies,” “middle class” and “public broadcasting.”  A conservative one was more likely to use “death tax,” “illegal aliens” and “nuclear power.”

This is kind of a weird way to measure bias.  If the New York Times decided to run a 10-part series on nuclear power around the world, and used the words “nuclear power” 10 times in each story, that would steer the paper toward the right? 

Anyway, this finding makes intuitive sense to me.  It would be nice to think the “objective media” still existed, but the fact is, a serious news consumer who wants the full story free of political spin, has to travel on both the left and right sides of the media nowadays, and then do some kind of averaging to find where the truth lies.


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