Not really. I scarcely know you! You could be anybody clicking his way through Web pages. But if my headline suckered you into reading this column, you just conformed to the expectations of news-media consumers held by University of Chicago scholars Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro.
In a new, math-heavy paper titled “Media Bias and Reputation,” the two economists leapfrog over the usual analysis about the media’s liberalness or conservativeness to construct a new model of media bias. They assume, logically enough, that media firms seek to establish reputations as purveyors of accurate information because such reputations increase demand for their products.
If news consumers can’t easily evaluate the quality of a news story, they will tend to grade it based on their previous observations of the media outlet. No surprises so far. But the article, which will appear in the April issue of the Journal of Political Economy, goes on to present findings that are sure to appall and delight students of press bias. Gentzkow and Shapiro find that:
1) If a media outlet cares about its reputation for accuracy, it will be reluctant to report anything that counters the audiences’ existing beliefs because such stories will tend to erode the company’s standing. Newspapers and news programs have a visible incentive to “distort information to make it conform with consumers’ prior beliefs.”
2) The media can’t satisfy their audiences by merely reporting what their audience wants to hear. If alternative sources of information prove that a news organization has distorted the news, the organization will suffer a loss of reputation, and hence of profit. The authors predict more bias in stories where the outcomes aren’t realized for some time (foreign war reporting, for example) and less bias where the outcomes are immediately apparent (a weather forecast or a sports score). Indeed, almost nobody accuses the New York Times or Fox News Channel of slanting their weather reports.
3) Less bias occurs when competition produces a healthy tension between a news organization’s desire to conform to audience expectations and maintaining its reputation.
The Gentzkow-Shapiro model helps explain Fox News Channel’s success. Because folks tend to become more politically conservative as they age, and because older folks spend more time in front of their televisions than young folks, it stands to reason that the first network to coddle this underserved audience would profit. Citing a 2002 Pew Research Center for the People survey, the authors note that 30 percent of respondents who identified themselves as conservatives said they believed all or most of what Fox says, while only 15 percent of self-identified liberals believed the same. Meanwhile, 35 percent of liberals believe all or most of whet they hear on NPR, while less than 20 percent of conservatives do.
The authors cite other examples supporting their thesis. CNN, like the other networks, flew a flag logo on the screen after 9/11. However, it dropped the logo from its CNN International channel, which the company beams to non-U.S. audiences. Said the network’s president, our audience “expects us to have a non-U.S. viewpoint.” A 1992 analysis of newspaper readers found that only 2 percent of respondents categorized their political views as “very distant” from those of their primary newspaper. Local sports columnists may favor local teams, but not when making pregame predictions.
Gentzkow and Shapiro could have easily included Daniel Okrent’s controversial—but correct—assessment of the New York Times as a liberal newspaper. You may recall how Okrent, the Times’ first public editor, infuriated many on the paper’s staff in his July 25, 2004, column when he indicted the paper on several counts of pandering to its readers’ expectations with its advocacy journalism. He wrote “if you think the Times plays it straight down the middle” on the social issues—gay rights, gun control, abortion, and environmental regulation—”you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.” The Times presents “the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading,” he wrote, when coverage that analyzed the effects of gay marriage was in order. The paper’s cheerleading, one would extrapolate from Genztkow and Shapiro, may delight the paper’s 1.1 million circulation, but at what cost?
Gentzkow and Shapiro end their paper with a pair of policy recommendations based on their ideas about competition. Domestically, they say the best check on bias is a competitive media market, by which they mean limits on media ownership. Overseas, they counsel the U.S. government to combat alleged anti-Americanism in the media by stimulating competition—not with demands, for example, that Al Jazeera’s sponsor, the emir of Qatar, censor his network.
The authors’ great achievement is that they write intelligently about press bias without descending into a conversation-killing discussion of “objective” and “subjective” journalism. That said, I wish they’d tested their theory a bit more rigorously by applying it to the British press, which is both competitive and excessively partisan. Despite the existence of the trans-Atlantic-flavored Economist and Financial Times, the four leading papers on the British newsstand—the Times, the Independent, the Guardian, and the Telegraph—contradict the Gentzkow-Shapiro thesis. Over there, competition has spawned newspapers whose major occupation is to provide a daily reaffirmation of one’s worldview.
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