At First Glance: Bias in the Media
By Bryan Caplan
Economists have done some sophisticated work on media bias. For example, Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo have a neat paper, “A Measure of Media Bias,” that compares the think tanks that politicians and the media cite. They find that the major media have citation patterns closer to that of the the typical Democrat than the typical member of Congress:
Although we expected to find that most media lean left, we were astounded by the degree. A norm among journalists is to present “both sides of the issue.” Consequently, while we expected members of Congress to cite primarily think tanks that are on the same side of the ideological spectrum as they are, we expected journalists to practice a much more balanced citation practice, even if the journalist’s own ideology opposed the think tanks that he or she is sometimes citing. This was not always the case. Most of the mainstream media outlets that we examined (ie all those besides Drudge Report and Fox News’ Special Report) were closer to the average Democrat in Congress than they were to the median member of the House.
While I love this paper, I want to propose a much more straightforward test of media bias: Simply by reading the title of the article, can you tell what the reader is supposed to think about the story? This is amusingly easy. For example, here are a few titles from the front page of the Washington Post:
What the Reader is Supposed to Think About the Story: We should listen to these experts and act before it is too late.
What the Reader is Supposed to Think About the Story: Palestinians’ secular dream should not end.
This isn’t always possible. For the article “ABC’s Woodruff Injured in Iraq,” it’s not clear what deeper inference the reader is supposed to draw. “Woodruff shouldn’t have gone to Iraq”? No. “The U.S. shouldn’t be in Iraq?” That’s reaching. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. What’s surprising, however, is how often the media’s cigars are much more.
If you’re feeling puckish, you’ll put my own titles to my test. Fair enough:
Title: At First Glance: Bias in the Media
What the Reader is Supposed to Think About the Story: The media is obviously biased.
You’ll conclude that I, too, tell my readers what to think about the facts. Fair enough, but at least I admit it – and so would most bloggers. Old economy media like newspapers and tv should get off their high horse and do the same.