Before going in to academia, I worked in both news and sports reporting. As a reporter, I got used to a wide range of people hoping to get coverage for their events. But I also got used to people getting very nervous when I called them up or knocked on their door. Heck, in high school it was the assistant principals trying to run away from me, since I had just received the state report saying the school underperformed on state test scores relative to other schools of similar socioeconomic status. Formally, I had a lot of different beats during my years in the newsroom. Informally, my beat was usually “people in power who screwed up or were screwing the readers.”
When we think about who gets in to the news, we normally think that getting coverage is a good thing while being ignored an omission. Most studies of “selection bias” – a bias about what gets covered and what does not – interprets omission of a particular topic or speaker as the best indicator of bias against that topic or speaker. (See Groeling 2013 for a recent review of studies on partisan media bias.) Omission as bias is a perfectly reasonable assumption for most mainstream news coverage. Because journalists are not omniscient, they need to rely on sources to find potential stories. When some sources can get journalists’ attention and others cannot, this is a sign of the source’s influence and the journalists’ responsiveness to that source.
Omission as a kind of bias has been particularly important for sociologists, who are often interested in social movement organizations’ attempts to get media coverage. Gitlin’s 1980 book on Students For a Democratic Society, Hallin’s 1986 study of Vietnam War coverage and Oliver and Maney’s 2000 study of protests in Madison, Wisconsin are exemplars of the long literature focusing on the inclusion and omission of activists. Because the people who tend to excluded from the news tend to have different points of view than those who get regular media attention, avoiding these potential sources means a limit on the range of ideas available to an audience. In my own research, I try to explain some of the social mechanisms underlying the balance of opinion found in news coverage. The way presidents design news events is a relatively powerful predictor of how much coverage they get, which influences how much their point of view dominates the coverage and how many other sources get included. Journalists put less emphasis on including a wide balance of opinion in smaller stories.
Ironically, my own experience as a reporter was an exception to the general rule that inclusion means favoritism, while exclusion is a negative bias against a source. I was the guy who asked a spokesman for Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories (birthplace of the atomic bomb) about how they could lose shotguns and “power generators.” Like any reporter, a lot of my stories were based on a source pitching their event and receiving attention on their terms. But my most read stories all focused on the hidden and controversial actions of public officials. From their perspective, media inclusion means scandal, while avoiding the media spotlight is a better outcome.
While investigative journalism is increasingly rare in today’s mass media environment, the desire to avoid certain genres of media coverage is more and more commonplace. Berry and Sobieraj recently published a book on the rise of outrage as a growing genre in political media. Cable news organizations, new publications like the Huffington Post and Gawker, and partisan blogs may all focus more on mocking and attacking people than promoting the things they favor. As the Internet makes it easier for writers to specialize in a particular niche, “avoidance” of a particular speaker or topic appears to take on a very different meaning than it does with mainstream media organizations.
How often can we interpret a media organization avoiding a particular source or idea as synonymous with disapproval of that source’s ideas? When is it a bad idea to equate avoidance with bias? My reporting experience taught me that the avoidance = bias equation was always a bit of a theoretical shortcut, but now it seems clear that this theoretical shortcut can make it harder for scholars to compare traditional reporting to newer forms of “outrage” media.