Why Shoot the Objective Messenger?

Donald Trump continues to frustrate progressives. His latest offense is tweeting out a meme over the weekend calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s graphic appears to have been copied from a white supremacist message board. Mic.com has consistently pursued the links between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups since November, when Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistics Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most whites and most blacks are killed by blacks. A wide range of news organizations criticized Trump’s November tweet, pointing out that there is no “Crime Statistics Bureau” and that most homicides with a white victim also have a white killer. Many pundits on the left expect a more vigorous media response to Trump’s latest tweets:

Carlos Meza is a research fellow at Media Matters for America, the largest think tank specializing in progressive media criticism. This type of argument dates back to the Vietnam War. Anti-war protesters wanted to get in the news in the first place (initial coverage excluded them). Then they wanted the media to avoid “taking both sides” and take an explicit anti-war stance. For 50 years there have been progressives who want media organizations to take an explicit moral stand with the left. I read a lot of these critiques in graduate school, dating back to Todd Gitlin’s relatively sympathetic take on Students for a Democratic Society. The argument hasn’t really changed over the years. Progressive critics always say news organizations care too much about money when they should be using their platforms to take moral stands.

Critics like Meza don’t spend as much time thinking about what would happen if mainstream media organizations all embraced progressive moral stances when reporting the news. What would happen if the media emphasized “combatting open bigotry” instead of “impartiality and balance”? How much could media organizations actually do here? Meza argued any media organization that takes both sides instead of taking a moral stance against Trump is “aiding and abetting evil.” Ironically, I was already working on a post explaining why it doesn’t make sense for most mainstream media organizations to take these stances before this weekend. The short answer is people don’t know why media organizations make particular choices, so they apply their political bias to interpret any news report. A media organization’s claiming that “TRUMP IS A BIGOT” won’t convince people who don’t already believe Trump is a bigot. It will only label the media organization as left-wing and make the accusation of bigotry more ideological. The full answer is much longer and explains why Trump can get so much media attention in the first place.

Connecting the Dots

Before getting in to the weeds of how media organizations work, it helps to review the research of former UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel. He wanted to see how people made sense and maintained order in everyday life. He intentionally provoked unsuspecting people in order to see how people made sense of things and what they took for granted. He would erase your circle and draw an X through it in tic-tac-toe. He had students try to barter for the price of their groceries and interrogate bus drivers about how we could be absolutely sure the bus was going where the driver said it was going. Tic-tac-toe makes for a funny game in the classroom, but most of these experiments outraged people. (I’m obligated to warn you not to try this at home…unless you want to mess with a telemarketer.)

My favorite of Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments actually took place in a laboratory. Participants were allowed to ask 10 yes or no questions and get replies from a social psychology professor (presumably Garfinkel) in the next room. All the participant had to do is write down what they thought about each response before asking the next question. One after another, people asked deeply personal questions and explained how the answers made sense. However, the “expert” in the next room was just someone flipping a coin and then saying “yes” or “no” in to the microphone. The answer was completely random, but the research subjects accepted the validity of the answers. More importantly, they wrote elaborate stories to justify the response.

Sports fans know that people tend to tell bad stories when they start with an end result and then work back to discuss process, despite all the data available in sports. Let’s imagine every time Derek Jeter bats is like rolling a 20 sided die, and he gets a hit on 1-6. Random coincidence could lead him to keep rolling low numbers in big at bats – and a 30 percent chance of success isn’t that rare. However, luck and coincidence make for terribly unsatisfying stories. Sports fans are like the people in Garfinkel’s experiment. Did this team win? It’s a yes or no question. Most fans start with the final answer, then have to come up with a story of why this happened. That’s how some athletes get labeled as “clutch” and others as “chokers.” The label is usually based on winning and losing, not direct knowledge of the athlete’s decision-making and whether he made good decisions.

Why Can’t We See How Journalists Make Decisions?

I started with sports because we can objectively measure athletes’ performance, look at how many championships they won, and still tell awful stories connecting the process to the result. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t see every play that went in to the progress of the playoffs or the regular season. That’s what it is usually like when we try to explain news coverage. Most social scientists don’t even try to compare the starting point of news events to the final story (or lack of a story). You can get published in the top sociology journal just by looking at a collection of final news stories and then proposing a story about why those news stories would have one set of themes instead of another. Why is it so hard to study the process of writing news more directly and systematically? Once we understand this, it will be much easier to understand why news organizations may not want to take explicitly moral stances against Trump or anyone else.

1) What counts as “news”?

When I taught undergraduates about the newsgathering process, I always started by asking them what counts as news. You may not be a journalist, but you can easily play along. What kinds of things would you post on social media? What do you want to read? Even when I taught a small class of under 20 people this fall, we quickly realized that no one would have identical rankings of potential news stories. Every newsroom I have worked at could get in to the same arguments. When Gaye Tuchman wrote one of the classic ethnographic studies of newsrooms in the 1970s, she found newsworthiness was the hardest thing for journalists to define. Even professionals use a “know it when I see it” philosophy to assess newsworthiness.

2) Content producers need heuristics

Let’s imagine you were working at a newspaper. Maybe it would be more appropriate to imagine you are writing your own blog like I am right now. You want to make sure you keep producing the best stories for your audience, so you keep searching for new stories and eliminating possibilities. How much do you write? The answer is nothing! The rate of new things happening in the world is faster than the rate at which we can eliminate possibilities. Even if we are writing our own blogs and don’t have to argue with anyone, deliberation takes time. The only way to get anything written is to limit your search and say “I’m going to write about the most interesting thing I can find by a certain time.”

Journalists use a wide number of heuristics to manage the influx of potential stories – and most partisan sites seem to use similar heuristics. One of the main heuristics is to sit down and write a list of who is most likely to provide news stories, then assign reporters to check in with these sources on a regular basis. Planning events in advance lets journalists know “if I show up at a particular place and time, I can produce a story.” Reporters may not be able to verify if a source is telling the truth, so they default to trusting officials because they should have legitimate knowledge to information (Fishman 1980 holds up surprisingly well).

3) Everyone has incentives to hide the process

When we read a final news story, we don’t know if the reporter spoke to any press flacks to arrange an interview. We don’t know if anything was said off the record to explain the goals of the story, limit the scope of questions, or ensure a story is published at a particular time. When reporters selectively quote from interviews, we don’t know what was left on the cutting room floor. If reporters summarize what someone said and what they meant, we don’t know if the reporter understood correctly. (Most complaints about misquoting are really complaints about misunderstanding the intent of a statement.)

It’s probably easiest to understand why journalists don’t want to show the full process. They appear to have a lot of freedom. When reporters really have a lot of options, they don’t want to be second-guessed. Remember that Meza works full time at Media Matters, a think tank founded to second-guess journalists. When reporters have limited ability to search for stories before deadline or can’t get access to desirable stories, they want to hide their failure. When in doubt, reporters rely on official sources, but they want to hide an overly cozy relationship. The news organization that opens itself up to second-guessing may lose its audience to a tight-lipped competitor.

Everyone else involved in the news process also has incentives to hide the process and just focus on the final result. Audience members don’t want to sift through the reject pile every day – we have other things to do with our lives! If a source spoke off the record to attract news coverage or coordinate an interview, they would want to hide the friendly relationship. It looks better if the politician’s event is really the most important news of the day instead of merely being the easiest story to find. (Donald Trump’s media deluge is going to be much easier to understand by the time we’re done.) Sources who don’t know how to catch journalists’ attention or who say really embarrassing things in their interview may not want to explain how they were stupid.

News Stories Aren’t Enough

We know that news stories do not emerge from some alternative dimension. When we only see the final story in the newspaper, on television or online, it may not be completely satisfying. We want to be able to tell our own story of how reporters did their job. Trump coverage is a great example. If a news organization doesn’t call Trump a bigot, many progressives will be outraged. Meza and the thousands who liked or retweeted him need a story of why the media covered Trump neutrally.

Since reporters don’t want to tell us how they make decisions, we need to construct a myth from somewhere. We know people have likes and dislikes. We know news coverage emphasizes certain things more than others. Therefore, it is very simple to infer that reporters emphasize the things they like and ignore the things they dislike. Meza engaged in a very simple form of this, asserting that journalists inherently like objectivity and neutrality. Tuchman argued objectivity is more strategic. It’s a way to minimize the number of people who are outraged like Meza is.

When I studied press conferences I found the president got three out of every four quoted words in the New York Times the next day. Shorter stories about press conferences only had one source: the president. When journalists told longer stories they added more sources to give reactions. You probably didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize it until I did the study. A certain kind of news story can be mathematically unbalanced for decades and people won’t notice. When I presented these findings most audiences were stunned. Then they got angry. It helped me realize that people aren’t used to thinking about balance or imbalance in the news as some formal mathematical property. My audience mainly thought about how news gets produced when they see a story they don’t like! This is when people need to create some sort of myth to explain why the media isn’t giving what they want.

Let’s Trust the…Politicians?

The only people with a real incentive to talk about how reporters search for and write up news stories are the people who feel screwed over by the process. Let’s say someone was left out of the news. They could complain about censorship and say the press was playing favorites. Reporters don’t want to share “here are the sources who are in my top tier, second tier, etc.” Now let’s say someone is getting negative coverage. Pick any presidential candidate from 2016. They have all made mistakes and gotten negative coverage as a result. Why is the press focusing on this one negative story instead of other positive stories? Candidates have complained about an overly negative press for 50 years. It’s a claim that news organizations have never really been able to deflect. We know reporters choose a few stories from a wider set of potential stories. Reporters want to hide the process and their own political preferences. Now that I am no longer a news reporter I can say there was little correlation between whether someone was a good source and whether I personally agreed with their politics.

There’s something very unusual in how we think about political bias in the news. Politicians sell a myth that the media is biased and there are always better stories (about them) for reporters to focus on. We believe the politicians! After all, what possible reason could someone have to lie when asking for our vote? It’s absurd to think about how many people buy in to politicians’ myth of how news gets created by biased reporters. This shows how unsatisfying reporters’ claims of expert news judgment are. We want to tell some myth or origin story of how those news stories are created and why they favor some people or topics instead of others. Politicians may be extraordinarily self-serving, but they are the main group offering an explanation. Activists like Meza – who want to fundamentally change media organizations – are the other group offering explanations.

How Does This Help Us Explain the Trump Show?

Donald Trump announced he was running for president a year ago. He has dominated the airwaves since. We probably haven’t seen such a dramatic imbalance in how much coverage one candidate got relative to others in his party’s primary. A few months before Trump announced, I predicted someone who ran a campaign based on social identity would get considerable media attention. However, Trump’s media strategy has gone beyond what I predicted. He emphasizes getting a large volume of coverage like no candidate before him. He speaks almost entirely in feelings, often subverting the entire premise of a “fact check.” I think Trump’s strategy takes full advantage of an audience that needs to manufacture coherent stories to explain patterns in news coverage and a press that refuses to tell this story themselves.

Conventional Wisdom: Avoid Gaffes

Before going in to Trump’s strategy in more detail, it is important to know how over the last 35 years political communication has gotten more professional and strategic. One of the main lessons for these strategists is to minimize gaffes. Politicians hold a lot of choreographed media events and photo ops. They may try to answer the question they wish they were asked instead of the question they were actually asked. Strategists probably don’t think they can completely bowl reporters over with these strategies. Any veteran reporter will recognize the manipulation at work. But they can’t stop it. The goal of these strategies isn’t to make a big impression. It is to limit the number of things a reporter has to choose from.

A good metaphor is a college football team that schedules Directional State University and Small School Tech to try and inflate its won-loss record. Large college football teams can essentially buy wins. Some teams also play in much more challenging leagues than others. A good team with a weak schedule may only have 2 or 3 games out of 12 that they have any real risk of losing. When most fans saw 13-0 Florida State in the first year of the college football playoff, they saw a great champion instead of a team that barely beat a number of teams in on a weak schedule. Florida State lost badly once they faced high quality competition in the playoff. Last year people were fooled again, this time by Big 10 champion Michigan State and runner up Iowa in the Rose Bowl. People saw college football teams that won a lot of games and told themselves a story that these teams were among the best in the country. They didn’t bother to check how these teams won and whether the process was solid.

Most politicians try to win our confidence with the same principle. They want to accumulate positive story after positive story mainly by limiting the pool of information that reporters have to pick from so there are only positive stories left. They try to avoid unscripted events that may give genuine moments that could inspire the audience, because these events could go badly. College football fans look the other way when a team from their conference benefits from an easy schedule. Partisan audiences do the same thing in politics. We want to see the other candidates go through the ringer and get beat up, but we assume our favorite candidate went through a much tougher schedule than they actually did. Clinton and Sanders were actually fairly nice to each other, compared to Obama v. Clinton in 2008.

Trump’s Casino Approach

Donald Trump doesn’t exactly come across as someone following the “avoid gaffes” conventional wisdom. He’s using a different strategy: try to be the lead story every day and accept some negative headlines rather than go a news cycle without being the top story. Flooding the airwaves is also a kind of gaffe deflection strategy. Most candidates try to avoid gaffes because they think one critical mistake could fester and sink a campaign. Trump tries to keep one gaffe from defining him by creating a new headline. Changing the story is an old public relations strategy. Most politicians try to use it to prevent negative stories, while businesses tend to use it after a scandal has happened. Trump is more than willing to give a new story about his campaign to distract from a gaffe, even if the new story is also negative.

If news organizations give media coverage based on whether a politicians has said something that will help the readers decide whether or not to vote for that candidate, then Trump has certainly earned the media attention he is getting. We expect certain things out of a generic Republican or generic Democrat. If a Republican says “Obama did a bad job” is that news? Republicans have been saying that non-stop for eight years. Regulation bad, free markets good is another very generic Republican position. Trump attracted attention by saying things that were well outside the Republican mainstream. He was more strident in disparaging Mexican immigrants. Trump also attacked mainstream Republicans, claiming they were too dependent on the Koch brothers and other big money Republican donors. Any member of a political party who criticizes their own party gets considerably more media attention (Groeling 2010). Sanders also got attention for attacking the Democratic National Committee. What makes Trump unique is his near exclusive reliance on a large number of news media appearances and social media messages instead of a balanced strategy including on-the-ground campaign staff or advertising.

Casinos tilt the odds so after enough games the house always wins. Trump has stacked the deck too. Whether it is intuition or calculation, Trump has a tremendous sense of what people will consider newsworthy. This doesn’t mean people agree with what Trump has to say. All it means is Trump can monopolize media attention. If people like Trump’s message, all the free media brings voters. If people don’t like Trump’s message, they may act like Meza and blame the media for giving Trump so much attention. People who don’t want to be subjected to the Trump show need some explanation for why so many media organizations pursue it. Maybe the media is politically biased. Maybe they emphasize Trump because Trump brings ratings and pageviews. The more voters question news organizations’ judgment, the more it helps Trump. Either way, Trump can get an advantage from dominating the headlines every day.

The other unusual thing about Trump’s campaign is his willingness to invent or ignore facts. Most politicians are afraid of saying something factually untrue. Reporters could run a “fact check” and embarrass the politician. Trump makes so many things up that the Associated Press used 10 fact checkers to review a speech on June 22. I don’t think Trump cares about fact checks because he is not trying to combine rational facts with emotional appeals. Trump’s campaign is entirely emotional. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, truth simply doesn’t appear to be a part of Trump’s message; Trump’s message is all about truthiness.

Truthiness Meets Hidden Journalistic Practices

Because journalists do not share every step of how they choose one news story and one angle over another, they have always required the audience to fill in gaps about who is credible. Everything a reporter shares about how they establish priorities is a gap people could use to undermine a reporter’s credibility. That’s why reporters use facts as supporting evidence as much as possible. When they don’t have facts, they use quotes and put someone’s claims in quotation marks. Most politicians and interest groups give some evidence to back their claims. We take it for granted that people will use some evidence. Trump doesn’t use facts as supporting evidence. There’s nothing to “fact check.” Audiences have to decide for themselves if Trump’s claims about America and policy proscriptions feel true, racist or fascist. Meza is the latest in a long line of progressive activists who do not trust the audience to reach the “right” conclusion without a massive shove from the media. Bigotry must be actively combatted. Journalists cannot be neutral. In his view, presenting both sides helps a bigot so much that it is “aiding and abetting evil.” (Has Meza linked to supporting evidence himself since I wrote this?)

Veteran reporters know it doesn’t matter how much you try to shove the audience to a particular position, they are still going to create myths to explain why a journalist took a particular stance or covered a particular story. When reporters actually offer an explanation it is often fuel for these hostile myths. That’s why reporters don’t accuse someone of lying without documented evidence. The accusation doesn’t make someone any less credible without proof. Let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper stood up and screamed “You are a racist!” when interviewing Trump a few weeks ago about the judge in the Trump University case. (In case you forgot, Trump cited the judge’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason for not dismissing the lawsuit.) I assume this would make a critic like Meza happy. I think this is what he wants Tapper and other journalists to do. But Meza already agrees with the assertion that Trump is a racist.

If people weren’t convinced Trump is a racist after that interview, there’s nothing that Tapper can say to change this. People tell myths about reporters’ ideologies and biases even when they have nothing to go on besides the final news story. These myths are mainly ways to discount news stories that don’t fit our political preferences. If Tapper took an explicit anti-Trump stance, he would just make it much easier for people to discount him as an ideologue. Just think about partisan media organizations for a moment. How much are they trying to actively persuade neutrals or the other side? Most of the content is giving true believers hot takes that make them feel good. If you really want to persuade people, you have to give them enough rope so then they can decide for themselves that they want to change their mind.

Ironically, the fear that media organizations are “legitimizing” Trump appear to be unfounded. Every public opinion poll has found many more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve of him. Trump’s favorability hit a record low of 29 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and has hovered in the low 30s in other polls. More than half of those polled in both the ABC/WaPo poll and a separate Bloomberg poll have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump. People can decide for themselves how they feel about Donald Trump without objective media organizations explicitly calling Trump a bigot or a fascist or something else. A wise progressive may conclude it’s better to present Trump in his own words and let the audience conclude he is a bigot than to add explicit condemnation, which could make it seem like a biased media is out to get Trump.

If you ask people “is the news media doing a good job?” most of them will say no. They read news stories, but most news stories just don’t give readers what they want to feel. Objective media is defined by stoic attempts to distance reporters’ feelings from their narratives. Partisan media is defined by outrage. If you want something else from the media, you are probably out of luck. We need some narrative to explain why the media doesn’t give us what we want. These narratives always ascribe motivations and preferences to the media while leaving out sources. People blame the news organizations for covering Trump so much. It doesn’t matter that objective, “both sides” media coverage is leading a majority of Americans to have a strongly negative view of Trump.

What Is News?

I went to grad school to research what counts as news. How do people make these decisions? I never set out to do a breaching experiment. But when I proposed that sources may have power over journalists – and this could be quantified – I broke several of sociology’s norms. I didn’t automatically buy in to any of the common myths that ascribed motivations or bias to journalists. I wanted to empirically test these theories, to the degree that these theories were testable and a regression analysis can test any theory.

After my fourth year of graduate school I was mocked for being the only person at the media sociology panel who wanted panelists to say something about their methods instead of skipping to the data. Each panelist described a different role for sources in their study. I asked them to speak more directly about the role of sources during the Q&A. I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone – I only ask questions at talks that I think the speaker can reasonable answer. Three of the panelists froze and the fourth tried to hide under the table! I made the mistake of emphasizing sources and strategy at a time when my peers turned to critics like Meza to fuel their echo chamber.

Like I said earlier, veteran reporters know at a certain point they have to trust their audience because there is nothing more they can say to sway their audience. I think I’ve reached that point with my blog. Unfortunately, offering factual information to support claims of how journalists make decisions is harder than finding factual information on nearly any other topic. One of the things I taught my students when teaching research methods is that people can always find a way to discount research if they want to – and some people are highly motivated to discount research about news.

I’m not going to delete this blog. I could always bring it back at some point. But after a decade of banging my head against the wall I need a break.

Bernie Sanders’ Mystery Address?

Did you know Bernie Sanders was going to have a major video address tonight? You probably won’t find any news coverage with headlines like “Sanders to Make Big Announcement Tonight.” The only way I found out was by talking to a Sanders canvasser last night. Here’s what Sanders is saying on his campaign Twitter page:

Sanders has pinned similar tweets for the last few days. You’ll notice there is no link directly to the live stream in the tweet. What happens if you click on Sanders tweet?

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 4.08.24 PM

I got to the following landing page. In case you are reading on a phone and can’t clearly see the text in the photo, Sanders is only giving the video link to people who fill out an online form with their e-mail, zip code and mobile phone number:

The political revolution continues. Submit the form below to receive the link via text message for the Bernie national live stream before it begins on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT.

[form to fill out, then in smaller print]

By submitting this form, you are subscribing to mobile alerts from Bernie 2016. Periodic messages. Msg & data rates may apply. Text STOP to 82623 to stop receiving messages. Text HELP to 82623 for more information.Terms & Conditions

Modern political candidates are always looking to build the size of their e-mail lists. The Sanders camp likes text messages too. I got an unsolicited text the week before the California primary with my name and polling place! (I try to avoid all these lists and hate the spam messages.)

Sanders restricting his video to people who join his e-mail and texting list is emblematic of his media strategy. He is creating an event for core supporters and creating a barrier to entry. Other candidates would probably go on cable news to maximize their audience size. The Sanders campaign could always post a link for everyone to watch, whether or not they want to make a broader commitment to his political revolution. I don’t think any of these decisions is inherently better or worse than other decisions.

One of the main things I studied in graduate school is how decisions like Sanders’ restricting his live stream to subscribers could affect subsequent news coverage. How can news organizations like CNN or the Los Angeles Times cover Sanders’ live stream? Well, someone has to tell them about it. Smart communications staffers don’t just say “we’re having a live stream” if they want a lot of attention. If the Sanders camp told CNN “we’re going to have a big announcement so go to us live” they may cut to Sanders at 8:30 ET. If the Sanders camp leaked something like “Sanders will / will not concede. See full announcement at 8:30” then news organizations would have written preview stories. Print and online organizations could publish any hour of the day but need to make sure writers and editors are available.

With an hour before Sanders’ live stream, there are no preview stories. One possibility is that Sanders doesn’t have anything groundbreaking to day – despite days of promotion on his Twitter account – so news organizations deliberated a possible preview story and rejected it. The other possibility is the Sanders camp hasn’t given reporters a preview of what he is going to say. Preview stories tend to rely on advance leaks to set the context for the main event. No leaks mean no previews and a more concentrated audience. Sanders is speaking after the nightly network news for most of the country, which gives even more evidence that Sanders is following a narrowcasting strategy. Selecting your ideal audience instead of maximizing the total audience is often a good strategy.

[edit: I added this around half an hour before Sanders’ live stream since it needed more detail]:

I imagine Sanders supporters will complain about a lack of media coverage, but getting a small amount of coverage isn’t always a bad thing. Sanders is designing his event in a way that makes it harder for other politicians to respond before East Coast reporters’ deadlines. The most likely situation is a small amount of coverage focused solely on what Sanders says, unless he says something dramatic enough that other politicians choose to respond immediately. One of my core research findings is that drawing more attention to a planned news event generates more coverage, but it also leads reporters to seek out additional sources. Ronald Reagan used prime time press conferences to monopolize the next day’s newspaper coverage for six years before House Democrats learned to wait by the telephone and call reporters to respond to Reagan that night. Rapid response is much easier today, but there’s still going to be a tendency for Washington reporters to write stories quickly and then go home for the night. Sanders may be looking to exploit this opportunity even if fewer words are written about him.

Edit #2: 

This was posted maybe 5 minutes after my first edit:

Thanks to @GeorgWebb on Twitter for pointing this out!

We also have a preview from ABC. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver e-mailed the following to Sanders supporters:

“Our political revolution is not just about what happens in Philadelphia, or even at the election in November.” Weaver said they would work to keep Donald Trump from being president, but added, “In order for the work that we have begun to be long-lasting for years to come, we must continue our political revolution.”

I imagine ABC would be quoting Weaver from an interview if he agreed to give one beforehand. Right or wrong I’m going to lock this post down (if I can) and own it even if I am completely off base.

Is Trump Biting the Hand that Feeds His Campaign?

Yesterday Donald Trump made the following announcement on his Facebook page:

Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post.

The Post joins Politico, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Univision and Fusion (both targeting Latino audiences) and leading newspapers in Iowa and New Hampshire as some of the media organizations banned by Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee didn’t single out a specific story he thought was inaccurate. I pasted in Trump’s entire explanation above. Josh Voorhees at Slate guessed that Trump took particular offense at a story “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting”. Trump was quoted saying the following:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said in a lengthy interview on Fox News early Monday morning. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

A few minutes before I heard about Trump’s outrage at the Washington Post, I was listening to an “On The Media” podcast segment where Paul Waldman of The American Prospect was interviewing Jake Tapper (look for the 6/9 episode). In case you missed it, Tapper got attention last week for asking Donald Trump whether or not his comments about the judge handling the Trump University case were racist:

Waldman argued that Tapper didn’t go far enough. For all his persistence, Tapper didn’t directly confront Trump and call him a racist. Waldman said journalists need to step up and morally condemn Trump. Tapper responded that’s not his job. He needs to get Trump and Clinton on his show as much as possible and try to get them to answer questions so the viewers can see what candidates are saying. Tapper wanted the focus to be on Trump (and Clinton). He feared taking a more aggressive stance would make him the story. Waldman countered that Tapper was too concerned with protecting his access…a few days before Trump reminded every journalist just how willing he is to deny access.

For journalists in today’s media environment, getting access is a strange strategic calculation. Barring a news organization isn’t going to stop them from covering a campaign. A wide range of bloggers and online only media organizations have been able to cover news and develop their audience without any direct access to newsmakers. Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, posted this response on Twitter.

Strategic decisions about how to get access from presidents and campaigns is fundamentally different from most sources. Reporters normally want to develop sources because they never know when they could benefit from having more access in the future. Campaigns and administrations have a specific end point. I There’s a reason why we see stories like anonymous Sanders staffers blaming Sanders for the nastiness towards the end of the Democratic primaries near the end of the primary campaign, not the beginning. If staffers throw Sanders under the bus, what can Sanders really do to retaliate?

Game theorists argue this is a common problem with games that have a clear ending point that is specified in advance. People know they can defect at the end of the game, because there will not be any repercussions. In a related story, candidates who win an election tend to start off with a honeymoon period from the press. Reporters know that president will be around for 4 or 8 years and do not want to lose access early. But towards the end of a president’s second term, news coverage falls off and/or becomes increasingly negative. In games where both parties have a reasonable chance of interacting again and they have no idea how long the game will go on, there are more incentives for cooperation.

I imagine most readers wouldn’t think of applying game theory to relations between campaigns and the media. The most common game is the “prisoners’ dilemma” – will one criminal cut a deal testify against their partner even though the police lack concrete evidence? The prisoners’ dilemma gives two options and no middle ground. It’s a simple game because each of the prisoners only makes one decision. Campaign coverage can have a “game” every day: will a certain story get in the news today? Journalists like Jake Tapper cooperate by going to campaign events and publishing an account of what happened. They defect by refusing to cover an event or pursuing stories the administration tries to bury. Waldman of The American Prospect tried to argue defection means directly criticizing Trump – partisans have different definitions of “cooperation” and “defection” because they are playing a different game than objective journalists.

Presidents cooperate by offering a journalist as much or more access than they offer any other news organization. Cooperation doesn’t have to be giving one group special treatment. Giving everyone a media credential is an example of cooperation. Presidents defect by offering one journalist less access than others. Good examples are Barack Obama going on the View and a wide range of local television stations instead of having long sit down interviews with leading news organizations.

I don’t think a politician criticizing the media, in and of itself, counts as defection. Let’s say a president got angry about a question at a press conference and attacked the reporter:

George W. Bush cut off NBC News’ David Gregory, but he offered some response to the question first. You can decide for yourself how well he answered the question. In this case, a confrontation and refusal to keep discussing the issue was still newsworthy. This was one of four press conferences I looked at for my master’s thesis. The main way presidents “defect” during a press conference is by ignoring the topic of a question and moving to something else that reporters don’t want to write about. This strategy creates a shortage of news. Refusals to answer can still give reporters a story.

Most presidential candidates in 2016 have tried to emphasize their independence from the Washington media. News organizations need to emphasize their independence from politicians in order to maintain credibility. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate who has not railed against the media, so some progressive pundits think she is colluding with the Beltway media. I think the tone of Ryan’s critique of the Associated Press is ridiculous, but he did stumble towards truth. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is as close as we have come to a presidential candidate who refuses to cooperate with the media. He wanted no part of the Clinton e-mail story. He routinely blasted corporate media in his stump speech. More importantly, Sanders campaigned by giving his stump speech across the country instead of relying on photo ops and interviews. Trump used the machine instead. He fed the media and got rewarded with far more news coverage than Sanders.

Since the 1950s most leading politicians have realized they need the news media to reach the largest possible audience, and the news media needs politicians to keep generating stories. It’s not a perfectly symmetrical game. Scandal-ridden politicians are better off hiding everything from the press then leaving enough breadcrumbs for a scandal to explode. But as long as journalists are looking for routine news stories to fill their pages, a politician has every reason to fulfill this need. Most of the time mutual cooperation is an optimal strategy. Both politicians and reporters want to set the terms of cooperation. They push each other back and forth all the time.

But there’s a reason Nixon didn’t pull the Washington Post’s credentials during Watergate. Once the story was out there, completely cutting off the media wouldn’t help him. Trump told the Washington Post he intends to defect for the rest of the campaign. It’s a credible signal; none of the other news organizations on Trump’s banned list have gotten off the list. Trump appears to be betting that the only way news organizations can “defect” is by refusing to give him attention, and no news organization would do that. However, there is nothing more Trump can do to try and negotiate the terms of cooperation with the Post or the other news organizations he has banned. They are now free to dig up every skeleton without fear of losing more access to the campaign. Trump’s core supporters may not care what the Post uncovers.

However, Trump has played games with the media every day, trying to maximize attention. As much as Trump criticized and insulted reporters during his rallies, his campaign has been the most cooperative with the press. He was always giving access new stories – the biggest thing reporters want. Now Trump is saying he will not be giving as much access. He’s not cooperating with everyone. This may give Hillary Clinton an opportunity to get more attention and take away Trump’s biggest advantage from the primary.

Why Does the LA Times Know they Can’t Rally Readers?

There was a shooting two days ago in the same building at UCLA that I taught a few classes in. Over the last year I met a number of engineering, computer science and biology students looking to add statistics to their skill set. I couldn’t work on Wednesday. I was too busy texting friends to see if they were on campus and safe. Thankfully all of my friends are safe, but I know there are people in the UCLA community who cannot say the same. After any mass shooting we see various editorials and thinkpieces. To quote a Los Angeles Times staff editorial posted an hour after police gave the all clear sign:

“In this case, it was only two dead. Murder-suicide in a small office. And so America shrugs. Just another violent incident in the daily parade of gun violence that defines contemporary America.”

This shooting was much closer to home. It turns out the shooter was a former graduate student with a grievance against his professor. Teach enough students and you will run in to someone who is neurotic and absolutely refuses to take responsibility for their failures. Six months ago a student told me she turned in a homework assignment but got a zero because my teaching assistant missed it. I grabbed my phone, emailed my TA, and said I would get back to the student. Problem not solved. This student kept insisting she did the assignment. It didn’t matter how many times I said “we’ll check.” This student followed me out of the office and through the quad, continuing to insist she did that assignment. I think the only reason she stopped following me was because she recognized we were walking to the main administration building! She never did that homework, of course. Her final had explicitly racist answers. Good thing she was unarmed.

I wouldn’t say I am completely back to normal after the shooting. On the other hand, most of the performances around the shooting feel very familiar. Newspapers have played the LA Times’ role condemning gun violence before. Progressives have criticized the National Rifle Association before. If everyone fills their part of the script, we will see he main spokesman for the NRA come out in a few days and say this tragedy could be prevented if more people were carrying guns (as if that would pre-empt the initial shooting.) The LA Times editorial staff concedes that the nation accepts gun violence as “commonplace” and “that society will just shrug this off is tragic in its own way.” How did we get to the point where a leading newspaper would openly concede that their editorials are unlikely to sway the public?

The last time I remember so many people asking “why can’t the media blow the whistle about something outrageous” was in November. Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistic Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most White murder victims were killed by Blacks. However, the “Crime Statistic Bureau” does not exist. FBI statistics show most Whites are killed by other Whites. Reporters traced the graphic back to a self-identified neo-Nazi. Could reporters call Trump a liar? A racist? What would it take for reporters to “blow the whistle” and get people’s attention? I changed my lecture last minute to try and address this question, and tried addressing it in more detail the next week. After the shooting at UCLA, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my notes and try to explain why it is so hard to shake people in to believing something is serious and needs attention.

Media Setting Priorities?

A generation ago Walter Cronkite famously turned against the Vietnam War. (Cronkite’s own short retrospective on this is also worth watching.) Many historians think that Cronkite – a journalist – took the single most important step to sway public opinion on the war. Cronkite was famously stoic and detached as an anchor, even when describing how President Kennedy was shot and killed. I showed this clip in class once, then asked my students if they could or would take the same tone if they had to announce President Obama had been shot. Most said no. I imagine if we go back 50 years, most people would say no as well. Cronkite’s stoic detachment was part of what made him so trusted. He came off like a neutral arbitrator of what is important. Cronkite breaking character when condemning the Vietnam War showed an intensity and importance that went beyond day-to-day news coverage.

Walter Cronkite was famous and well-respected, but his journalistic standards weren’t that different from other journalists of his era. Nightly network news was seen as a public service. It was a requirement to keep a broadcast license. Edward Epstein wrote in his 1793 book News From Nowhere that the NBC executives he studied didn’t think about maximizing the audience or potential profits – they incorrectly assumed broadcast news could never turn a profit. Since national journalists of the 1960s and early 70s thought their job was entirely about public service, they didn’t care too much about audience preferences. Journalists thought it was up to them to educate the public and tell them what they should be caring about. If the nightly news could only contain 15 stories, then journalists would give you a list of the 15 most important stories they found that day. Major events like California’s upcoming primary election could get multiple slots in the top 15 to show even greater importance than just getting the #1 slot.

Media organizations play some of this filtering role today. Every media organization looks through a huge set of events happening in the world and pulls out a smaller set of things to write about. I go through that process myself as a small time blogger. We need this specialization and division of labor because we only have so much memory and so much time. It is impossible for us to be fully aware of everything that is going on in the world. Everyone produces their top 15 stories of the day, or top 30, or maybe their single story of the week if they write part-time.

The difference is today we have a much wider range of top 15 story lists to choose from. Audiences can comparison shop. If you want someone who feels as outraged as you about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, some partisan media site will fill the “ragehole” for you. If you want minute details about state-by-state primary rules and how they affected the election, there is a site for you. If you want a little update on the presidential election but don’t want it to gobble up 5 of the top 15 story slots, local newspapers and local television broadcasts will screen out the obligatory daily campaign updates.

Walter Cronkite didn’t have to think about creating a brand specializing in national news. Newspapers were regional. There were only three television networks, and they all broadcast similar types of news at similar times. Nightly news could ignore the audience’s preferences because there was minimal competition. Cronkite’s successors at CBS, along with reporters at national newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, have to cater to a specific audience. People who want to read about national politics on a regular basis tend to have strong political opinions. One of the main ways that older media organizations have tried to keep this audience is by treating single statements as enough for a full news story – as long as what the politician said would outrage part of the audience. These stories are very easy to write. It’s a cost-effective way to give the core group of politics readers the feeling of being immersed in a campaign.

Sharing Is Caring…too Much?

How did you reach this blog post? Did you type the name of my website in to your browser? Set up an RSS feed? Chances are you came across a link via Facebook or Twitter, or maybe a Google search. That’s more and more common these days. One recent study indicated a majority of Americans get their news from Facebook instead of directly visiting media websites or watching / reading offline content. Of course not everyone is on Facebook, and many Facebook users have no interest in politics. Think about your friends and family who are the most actively posting about politics on Facebook. Are they a little…different than the other people in your feed?


I’m blocking this guy. Wouldn’t you?

If you can’t imagine one of your friends or family members constantly yelling at the computer screen as they click “share link” you are lucky. Most of us have a range of anger. Some things don’t bother us at all, some are just a little annoying. There are only a few things that would get me screaming – like seeing the news that a UCLA student shot their former professor. You won’t see me post the minor squabbles I have. I make the conscious decision that many things are not worth writing a short Facebook post about. It’s definitely not worth your time to read me talking about minor annoyances. Most of us have some kind of filter. But we also know people who will post every grievance they have about the political process or one of the candidates in this election. When I see someone who posts how they are angry about something in politics or culture most days of the week, it makes me think of one of my favorite lines from TV’s Justified:

Raylan Givens: It’s all somebody else’s fault. You ever hear the saying “you run in to an asshole in the morning, you ran in to an asshole. You run in to assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Social media caters to people who want to spend their time confirming their political views and demonizing the opposition. How could you search for people who feel the same way you do about Donald Trump without social media? It’s going to be a lot harder. Any in-person rally or protest will be limited by geography. Sites like Facebook and Twitter quickly realized their biggest comparative advantage is the ability to let users find other users who share a common interest, even if they have nothing else in common. Hashtags, suggested friends and search features made this possible for the first time. These sites also use algorithms to promote posts that have already gotten a large number of likes and comments. Facebook is very proactive in hiding posts that do not get engagement. And Facebook’s experiments have shown people engage more with emotional posts than neutral ones. When we put this all together, angry Facebook posts will get more visibility and engagement than anyone inspired by Walter Cronkite.

Because sites that produce some kind of political media content are increasingly dependent on Facebook users sharing links, they are increasingly dependent on the emotional content that elicits engagement on Facebook. Sharing drives web traffic. This media ecosystem is great at signaling who is angry about what. Even traditional media sites are embracing “who is angry about what” as a common story trope for national politics. It’s not an entirely flawed system. People who would get ignored in Cronkite’s generation have an opportunity to share their views now.

The main problem is every company involved in political media has an incentive to cater to the people who cry “wolf” over every offense, regardless of its seriousness. Every post playing up how offensive something is will attract some of the audience that is looking for something to yell about today. It’s a great way to maximize your page views among the core audience for day-to-day political stories. But this media ecosystem is what enables someone like Donald Trump to get a record amount of media attention. Even before Trump ran I predicted that a candidate could monopolize media attention by filling the “ragehole” – the core political audience’s demand for daily outrage.

Most people want to reserve the media’s outrage alarm for something serious like Wednesday’s shootings at UCLA. (Remember that for all the attention Trump is getting, most Americans do not vote in presidential primaries.) When I read the LA Times staff editorial, I saw the voice of a media organization that knew what most people needed…and that they could never fulfill this need. After a decade of giving the niche politics audience what they want to maximize page views, they knew their opinion wouldn’t stand out from just another hot take on gun control once it gets to our Facebook feed.


There is one important silver lining in my analysis. It’s something that my students taught me. We don’t need to rely on media organizations to change in order to solve this quagmire. We don’t need Facebook to tinker with their algorithms again or get off Facebook altogether because algorithms are evil. All we need to do is stop liking and commenting on everything that gets us a little riled up about politics. Watching those friends and family members who do nothing but rant about politics is a lot like watching a car crash. I know we all tend to stop and stare at accidents – and that causes a traffic jam on the other side of the highway. People who use social media to wage a daily battle are getting in accidents. They are causing a traffic jam for the rest of us who want a different kind of media coverage. We can all do our part to avoid these accidents by showing some restraint. My 19-23 year old students had already learned this.

False Equivalence and Censorship

I avoided social media for most of last week. I knew my feeds would be full of hot takes about Trump’s rise. How could the media possibly play such a big role helping him to the nomination? I was one of the few people who wasn’t surprised. I predicted this media cycle over a year ago at the end of my dissertation. I posted my prediction and what led me to it on this blog in December. The one time I logged on last week to read non-sports tweets, I was surprised to see someone else’s predictions for the general election continue to pop up in my Twitter feed:

Among all these classes of professionals, all these institutions, that whole superstructure of US politics built around two balanced sides, there will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.

The US political system knows how to play the former script; it doesn’t know how to play the latter. There’s a whole skein of practices, relationships, and money flows developed around the former. The latter would occasion a reappraisal of, well, everything. Scary.

So there will be a push to lift Donald Trump up and bring Hillary Clinton down, until they are at least something approximating two equivalent choices.

This comes from a longer post from David Roberts of Vox. Roberts starts his essay with the position that “Almost irrespective of what you think of Clinton’s politics or her policies, she is manifestly more prepared to run the federal government than Donald Trump.” Regardless of the qualities of the candidates, research has shown a bias to favor the underdog and make campaigns look more competitive. Roberts argues the imbalance between candidates is the “elemental fact about the election,” but mainstream media organizations will be unable to address it. Roberts’ essay draws from a common complaint on the left: as Republicans have drifted further right, they are no longer equivalents of the Democratic Party. Roberts tries to argue it is media norms, not reality, that puts the two parties on equal footing. The “false equivalence” complaint is most common in Roberts’ beat of climate change, where there is only one acceptable side within the scientific community.

What would it look like if a major media company actually followed Roberts’ suggestion? Facebook may give us some insight. Back in 2014, Facebook implemented a “trending topics” window to try and compete with Twitter’s specialty. The company never fully specified how decisions were made. Over the last week Gizmodo has published several stories about the former journalists hired to pick out Facebook’s trending topics. I recommend both. Here is a key quote from the first story:

“I got the sense that they wanted to keep the magic about how trending topics work a secret,” said another former news curator. “We had to write in the most passive tense possible. That’s why you’d see headlines that appear in an alien-esque, passive language.”

A former employee came forward today alleging political bias. A few directives allegedly came from the corporate office. However, those directives mainly listed a set of preferred media outlets (New York Times, Time, Variety) to verify a topic is trending and less prestigious sites to avoid (World Star Hip Hop, The Blaze). Exclusion of conservative political topics was up to the whims of who was working a particular shift:

“I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

“It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” said a different curator. “Every once in awhile a Red State or conservative news source would have a story. But we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased.”

Facebook goes to great lengths to present itself as one of the few neutral pipelines for media content. The company has aggravated progressive critics in the past by claiming their goal is to give the audience what it wants. One of the few times Facebook publicly admitted failure was in the early days of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Ferguson protests trended on Twitter while the Ice Bucket Challenge trended on Facebook. Some of these differences come from different user bases with different interests. However, Facebook has been relatively open about needing to have their thumb on the scale to make breaking news trend faster on the site to avoid future embarrassment.

Putting Facebook’s conundrum side-by-side with Roberts’ essay illustrates the fundamental problem of providing news content. True neutrality makes media companies look like they don’t care about anything but eyeballs and the least common denominator. People rely on journalists to do the hard work of putting a thumb on the scale, separating important stories from everything else. However, many people in the audience distrust that thumb on the scale. Audiences that care deeply about political news are like Roberts – they always imagine a better way to balance the news whether or not it is viable.

Most people assume objectivity is mainly a normative commitment to treat multiple sides equally. Roberts and the Gizmodo stories naively repeat this assumption. In practice, journalistic objectivity is more about deflecting accusations of bias (Tuchman 1972, link to JSTOR gated). When the president gives a press conference, the next day’s news stories do not try to give an equal balance of the president and the opposing party. In my study, the most common situation was only quoting the president. Readers don’t protest when a minor press conference leads to completely one-sided coverage. They don’t even notice! I found that the balance between quoting the president and other sources was largely a function of how much news coverage a conference received. Mainstream journalists care more about providing balance and objectivity when people are more likely to pay attention and complain about imbalance.

Now lets think about a presidential election. Large sections of the American population pay attention. News organizations do not want one side claiming they are biased. Partisans get very angry if you tell them their candidate had no shot. Republican activists argued the polls were “skewed” and tried to “unskew” them to show a competitive race. Sanders supporters have tried to cherry pick poll results all year to try and make him look like he was doing better than Clinton. Partisans are the most likely to feel that the media is biased against them. Imagine the next 100 polls said Clinton is favored by 20 points. If a reporter writes this story, Trump’s core supporters are more likely to believe the story or polls are biased than to believe their candidate is deeply unpopular.

All the hand-wringing about “false equivalency” and Facebook reminds me of the weirdest thing I ever saw in journalism. When I interned at a local television news station, the correspondents started most interviews with the camera off. Then they turned the camera on and asked the exact same question. I was shocked. How could this lead to good journalism? The most serious, grizzled correspondent at the station explained “if you get a bullshit answer, then they are stuck on camera giving a bullshit answer.” People react so badly to the image of a journalist with their thumb on the scale. Even people like Roberts who want more activist journalism seem convinced that reporters would never get it right. One of the best ways for a journalist to show a politician is manipulative and self-serving is to take their thumb off the scale. At a certain point you have to trust the audience’s judgment.

Using Baseball to Help Understand the Complexity of Political Bias

I’ve been thinking more about the differences between political and sports media since I finished my dissertation. Academics usually study political media bias. They ask questions like is Hillary Clinton getting more negative news coverage than Donald Trump or “is the media biased against Bernie Sanders?” We assume negative coverage of one politician usually means positive coverage for another. In a series of blog posts this week, I will try to explain why this is one of the worst ways to think about “bias” in media content.

Baseball reporting is a useful parallel to think about what people may have in mind when they say the media is biased. Every team has important weaknesses. Championship teams tend to lose 40 percent of their regular season games. When a team has its inevitable struggles, some fans irrationally panic. Other fans expect uniformly positive news about their favorite team. Anyone who reports honestly about a team’s weaknesses or struggles will face accusations of “hating that team.” The result is high profile baseball writers are accused of simultaneously hating every single team in the sport!

Sports examples show us that angry readers do not need to make comparisons before concluding that someone is biased against their side. All it takes for someone to say that the media is biased is to imagine some alternative form of news. When people complain that the media is too negative, they are imagining a more positive or uplifting set of stories that news organizations could publish but don’t. One of the most challenging things about the media is we don’t know the full list of stories that reporters have to choose from, given their deadline constraints. Media organizations ask readers to put faith in their story selection process. When a reader accuses a media organization of bias, they say “I don’t have faith in your ability to choose and/or present stories.”

Because claims of bias are about a lack of faith, people can make these claims without any journalistic expertise. They don’t need insight. People who claim bias don’t even need tangible evidence of a non-biased alternative. When I taught about media bias, I knew my students would already have strong opinions on whether or not the media is biased before they ever read scientific research on the subject. They had lived their entire lives with at least one party accusing the media of systematic bias. Parents, other teachers and peers could also socialize students to make certain assumptions about media organizations’ strengths and weaknesses before they entered my classroom.

Social media has made it much easier to spread claims of bias that feel right, even if the evidence is incredibly thin. Two weeks many of the Bernie Sanders supporters I know passed around the following meme:

Is this really enough information to assess a media organization?

Is this really enough information to assess a media organization?

Both headlines were published by The Washington Post within a day of each other. Sanders supporters held this up as yet another example of how the Post is biased against their side. (I rolled my eyes at this whole back and forth.) Unfortunately, Sanders supporters didn’t use weeks worth of news coverage to produce the “WaPo is biased” meme. They didn’t even invite people to read both stories and compare for themselves. They made their comparison based on the smallest bit of information: the headline. By this point, Bernie Sanders supporters had already lost faith in the Post.

One day of news coverage doesn’t make a convincing argument. Every presidential candidate has bad news cycles, just like every pro baseball team loses games. In prior postings on this blog, I advocated for thinking of political media like a conveyor belt. Certain inputs lead to certain outputs. This is how I predicted a Trump style campaign in April of 2015. I knew if a high profile candidate emphasized social identity in their campaign, each statement would get major attention from legacy and new media organizations. The media levers existed in 2008 and were just waiting for the right candidate to pull them.

Most people don’t think of news content like something that comes out the end of an assembly line. They focus on the final story – particularly when they don’t like the final outcome. When people don’t have any special knowledge of the process that leads to the outcome, they make a guess based on their other beliefs. This is what made it so depressing to study news media content while working in a sociology department. Most sociologists never read empirical studies of media processes. Sociologists aren’t all that different from any other group of Americans when it comes to media literacy. And media literacy isn’t that different from any other aspect of social life. People see outcomes, create some explanation for those outcomes, and assume they know more than they actually do.

Twenty years ago, most baseball fans were this ignorant about the game they love. They focused on the easiest to count statistics, like runs batted in and pitcher wins. Statistically inclined baseball fans have always pushed for a greater emphasis on the process that makes a certain result more or less likely. Instead of focusing on a player who got a key hit in a playoff game and inferring they were a clutch performer, baseball fans started looking at whether players with this reputation performed better over a long period of time. They didn’t. Pitchers winning a lot of games say as much if not more about being on a good team than being good at their job.

People made terrible assumptions about baseball when they looked at results alone, and then tried to infer the process that produced their results. Today there is a much larger group of baseball fans who focus on process and try not to get too emotional about what happens in a small number of regular season games. There is no analogy for people brushing off a few negative stories about their favorite politician or political cause, even though everyone in politics will have their bad days. If you distrust a media organization and think it is biased, the only way to know for sure and potentially fix the problem is to push past the outrage and understand the process. That’s what political veterans do.

Up next: Why are the most politically knowledgeable some of the worst at evaluating media bias?

When Vigilance Doesn’t Overcome Bias

Last week, my friend Dan posted a provocative article from The Atlantic. Adrienne LaFrance, a technology writer for the magazine, was worried that she was not representing enough women in her reporting. She first got worried in 2013, so she counted up how many of the people mentioned in her articles were women. It was only 25 percent! LaFrance resolved to do better, but when she audited her articles last year, women were only 22 percent of the mentions. After going through the data, LaFrance argues

Some people would argue that I’m simply reflecting reality in my work. That’s an overly generous interpretation. Another popular reaction is that my job as a journalist isn’t to actively seek out diverse sources, but to find the most qualified people to help me tell the best possible story. I only agree with that in part: Yes, my job is to serve readers by finding the best sources for my stories, but why assume that the best source isn’t a woman? By substantially underrepresenting an entire gender, I’m missing out on all kinds of viewpoints, ideas, and experiences that might otherwise sharpen and enhance my reporting.

Two things struck me from this article. First, LaFrance acknowledges a reality about day-to-day journalism that most readers overlook. When you keep going from one story to the next, it is awfully difficult to take a step back and analyze any kind of pattern in news. This is one of the main reasons I left journalism to go in to academia. Second, people love to overestimate the power that journalists have to shape their stories, even LaFrance herself:

I’m not excluding women on purpose, but I can’t say it’s an accident, either. Reporters choose whom to interview. We carefully parcel out our time as we work toward deadlines. I spent several weeks working on this story about self-driving cars, for instance, and it occurred to me as I was reporting that I hadn’t interviewed any women. In the end, deadline pressure and decisions about what to leave on the cutting-room floor trumped diversity.

LaFrance’s essay is depressing, because it gives the impression that none of her vigilance had an impact on the gender equity in her stories. My friend Dan, who has never been in a newsroom, thought it was shocking. As part of my dissertation, I examined whether phrases dealing with gender were used more or less often online than phrases on other topics from August 2008 – January 2009. I found mainstream reporters’ interest in gender as a topic was mainly a side effect of their interest in everything the presidential candidates had to say. (They had more of an inherent interest in phrases dealing with race.)

Reporters may not have that much control over the gender balance of the sources they quote. Most potential stories have a limited amount of sources who can give enough information to start the story. Someone who wanted to cover the current Republican presidential primaries would have a much larger gender imbalance than someone covering the Democratic primaries. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned or vigilant the reporter is. The leading Republican candidates are all males. A reporter who gave Carly Fiorina 50 percent of the Republican coverage to fix a gender imbalance would have stood out as highly unusual.

When I covered politics, I chose my sources based on whether they knew things about new policies that could affect my readers. This meant I didn’t have many opportunities to choose sources based on their gender or race. The voters elected their representatives, and those officials chose which political operatives to hire. People who went in to activism made that decision before they shared their activism with reporters. Any reporter who chooses sources this way – maximizing access to factual information – will reflect the inequalities of the beat they cover. When I covered college admissions and affirmative action, I often needed non-officials to provide balance in my stories. Ward Connerly would step away from his day job to talk to any reporter about his crusade to end affirmative action. His job was to be my #1 most quoted source, and he had the financial resources to make his goal viable.

LaFrance’s argument would have been much clearer if she would have thought about the differences between selection bias and presentation bias. It is much easier to understand the problems LaFrance has with her reporting and think about solutions if we separate these issues. Let’s assume a science reporter rarely pays attention female scientists, but any story that actually gets written makes sure to make the scientist look brilliant and emphasizes the relevance of her research. In this hypothetical, the problem isn’t poor representation making female scientists look bad. Instead, we have a hypothetical where female scientists are less likely to be selected for news coverage, yet any female scientists who are selected will be represented with a positive bias.

People often get confused about the difference between selection bias and representation bias, so they talk about staying vigilant and diversity training as a solution to both problems. This type of training could be very useful in local television news, where Black criminal suspects are consistently portrayed differently than White suspects. But selection bias is a question of choosing from available sources. It is very difficult for reporters to go back in time and think of all their options for any particular story. It is almost impossible for readers to know who got left out.

I became an academic to study selection bias. While most of my peers focused on the final news story, I wanted to examine how many choices journalists have, and whether different journalists will tend to congregate on the same choices. I found that mainstream political journalists often do make similar choices, but it’s because they have relatively few good options to choose from. Selection bias is tied to broader issues of power, inequality and communications strategy. If you are selecting stories based on wanting to produce a certain kind of representation, that’s a different kind of media. Unfortunately, the audience that wants to read certain kinds of political representations overwhelmingly favors negativity and outrage. It’s an environment that makes Donald Trump’s campaign predictable for an analyst who can clearly separate selection bias from a crisis of representation.

Fixing a gender imbalance in mainstream reporting will require more than well intentioned reporters.


Postscript for academic readers: Academic journal articles are much longer than news articles. There is a wider range of sources who can contribute something – no one scholar holds all the cards like a politician can. Deadline scarcity isn’t really a factor. Put all these factors together and selection bias should be much less of an issue in academia. Therefore, vigilance against representation bias should be a more successful strategy in academia. This may also be why many academics have unrealistic expectations of journalists’ control over their narratives…


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