Friday, 20 May 2016

Sources of biased journalism

Over at the Stumbling and Mumbling blog Chris Dillow outlines some sources of biased journalism.
- Low pay. The problem here isn’t just that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. It’s that journalists are often paid less than PRs. This leads to many of them being insufficiently critical of their sources simply because they might want to work in PR later.

- Cost-cutting. Foreign correspondents have disappeared, as has much investigative journalism, and has been replaced by cheap celebrity gossip and cobbling stories together from a few tweets. What Ben Rhodes says of the US echoes in the UK:
All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.

- Class. Over half of top journalists were privately educated. This generates a host of distortions, such as a greater sympathy for the rich and powerful than for the poor, and a lack of understanding of economics: “Money? That’s what comes from daddy!”

- Exchanging favours. For years, the relationship between the police and media has been too cosy: the police feed stories to journalists who in return downplay or ignore stories of police malpractice. This is one reason why it took years for the brutality of the police at Orgreave or Hillsborough to become properly known. In the same way, advertisers buy not just advertising space but a cooperative silence, broken only by the occasional brave maverick such as Peter Oborne.

- Misplaced deference. The problem here isn’t just what Adam Smith called the tendency to respect the rich and powerful more than the wise and virtuous. Younger inexpert journalists often need help, which causes them to seek expertise where little exists. Fund managers, for example, are often presented as well-informed when in fact many are simply rip-off merchants. Similarly, their habit of being at the end of a phone with a ready quote about latest market moves or economic releases gives City economists more influence over journalists than academics have.

- Laziness. It’s easy to get a story by getting quotes from talking heads. It’s harder to find out what’s really going on. This leads to a bias in favour of those talking heads, and against groups which aren’t so rich or organized as to have spokesmen; compare, for example, coverage of banks to coverage of anti-capitalist protestors or of the rich to benefit recipients.

- Overcompensation. The problem with trying to balance is that you can sometimes overdo it and topple over – hence, for example, the Today’s programme’s otherwise odd decision to interview Ann Coulter and its giving more coverage to Conservative than Labour voices. Similarly, in the 90s the BBC’s liberal arts bias led to it being unsympathetic to business but in recent years, it has over-corrected and become insufficiently critical. I’ll plead guilty myself here. I might have sometimes been too uncritical in the day job of Brexiteers or active managers, as I’ve tried too hard to be “fair”.

- Libel laws. As Nick Cohen has shown, the cost of defending libel writs is so high as to have a chilling effect upon journalism; the misdeeds of the rich and powerful simply don’t get reported at all. This helps sustain inequality by leading the public to under-estimate the venality and corruption of the rich.

- Wanting the scoop. Journalists’ healthy urge to get a story leads to a reliance upon sources who have their own agendas. We see one baleful and widespread effect of this in the advance leaking of speeches; “the Prime Minister will say today…”. Such leaks mean that analyses of the speech are quickly out-of-date and stale, with the upshot that the speaker gets less critical coverage than he should.

- Cognitive biases. Every profession is prone to deformation professionnelle. One of journalists’ biases is the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to over-emphasize personal factors and under-rate environmental ones. For example, politicians are described as “weak” – think of John Major in the 90s – when in fact circumstances, such as a fractious party, make them so. It’s this failure to put things into context that led John Birt in 1975 to complain of the BBC’s “bias against understanding” – a bias which, says Steve Richards, still exists today.

- News itself. “Dog bites man” is not news, “man bites dog” is. This means that everyday tragedies such as the fact that tens of thousands still die of poverty are underplayed, whilst the most trivial of first world problems are covered in depth. Also, news prizes “human interest” stories. These are almost equivalent to committing the base rate fallacy – of failing to ask “how common is that?” This can lead to a class bias: lively stories of benefit fraudsters get covered whilst the millions of decent people living in desperate conditions get ignored.
The low pay argument is likely true. At least here in New Zealand I would say it is one reason for so-called economic journalists having no understanding of economics. Those trained as economists can make a lot more money outside of journalism than inside.

With regard to cost cutting and the disappearance of things like foreign bureaus you have ask what are the pressures that have led to these outcomes. Foreign bureaus and the like may simply not be worth it any more. Creative destruction? Have transaction costs been lowered so that vertical integrated companies with news outlets controlling their own foreign bureaus etc are no longer economic?  And it may be that the market for such things is no longer there. Charges in technology may have meant that those who want overseas news and analysis get elsewhere.

As to "class", well Chris is a Marxist so I guess it has to be in here, but I'm not convinced it plays a huge role.

Exchanging favours is nothing new so if its a problem now it has been in the past as well. Not sure what you can do about it. Both sides gain from it and so it looks like an equilibrium, even if you think its an inferior one.

Misplaced deference is more an issue of what experts do you ask. It's good that journalists do ask for help, in New Zealand in many cases it seems to me the problem is that they don't ask, but no matter who they ask you could argue that they are the wrong people to ask if you disagree with what they say. And there is the issue of whether journalists understand what they are told.

Laziness I'm sure is an issue but not just for the reason Chris notes. Its not just a "rich" against the "poor" thing. It really is that journalist don't do the work necessary to understand issues. Think about the coverage of "inequality". Have any journalists ask the question of why inequality matters at all? And if it does matter, inequality of what? Income? Wealth? Consumption? What? And so on.

Overcompensation is an issue. Just think of the coverage the anti-free trade groups get relative to the free trade supporters. The majority of economists support free trade but I'm not sure that's the impression you get from news coverage.

Not too sure liberal laws act in the way Chris seems to think. Again I think Chris overplays the "rich" versus "poor" issue. I don't see why newspapers can not defend themselves against libel actions.

Dealing with those who have agendas is part of the journalist's job and if they can't be bothered sorting out the truth from the crap then they do indeed fail one of the most obvious tests of being a good journalist. All the people/groups journalists deal with have their own agendas, it is the job of the journalist to see through this.

As to cognitive biases I'm sure they exist but what do you do about them? Everybody has them, so the best you can hope for is multiple viewpoints, each of which has different biases, which at least allows comparison of views.

As to the news itself issue, isn't this more of a consumer issue. The issues that get coverage are those for which there is a market. News outlets give people what they want, so if there is a problem with what is delivered as news it may not be because of the news providers so much as a problem with news consumers. Unfortunately crap sells.

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