News Seem Biased Against Your Side? That May Be a Good Thing

Over the last week, a few people have been asking me for my take on media coverage regarding Israel and Gaza. Is there media bias? Ironically, I assigned a study on this very topic in my class this week. When I made the syllabus months ago, I had no idea another controversial Israeli military operation would be in the news. A generation later, Vallone, Ross and Lepper’s classic study is instructive for understanding how audiences perceive media bias.

The study is based on media coverage of the Beirut Massacre from 1982. Like most controversial military operations, accounts differ and it is impossible to fully say what happened. What most parties agree to is that at least 700 civilian refugees were murdered by a Lebanese Christian militia, and the Israeli military bore at least some responsibility for not stopping the killings in territory they occupied at the time. However, Vallone and his co-authors felt there were so many factual disputes in 1985 that they could not score a 16 question “objective” questionnaire to test study participants’ knowledge of the incident.

Instead, the study focuses on how participants make sense of news content. Vallone, Ross and Lepper had a novel study design. They recruited groups of self-identified pro-Israeli students, pro-Arab students, and neutral students. (Today, we would probably recruit a pro-Palestinian group instead of a pro-Arab group.) Every study participant was shown the exact same 36 minutes of television news coverage, then asked a short set of survey questions about the portrayal of Israel. Here’s how the 3 groups evaluated the media’s treatment of Israel on a 1-9 scale, with 1 being opposition and 9 being support:Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 12.46.53 AM

Each survey question followed the same pattern, which Vallone, Ross and Lepper called the “hostile media phenomenon.” Pro-Israel viewers saw the news coverage as biased against them. Pro-Arab viewers looked at the exact same news stories and reached the opposite conclusion. Neutral audiences are somewhere in the middle. We shouldn’t interpret neutral viewers skewing towards “media bias against Israel” as a strong sign of biased coverage. It could also mean “neutrals” were more sympathetic to Israel than Arabs at the start of the study.

People tend to see the news as biased against them. As I explained to my students, there is a key difference between perceptions of media bias and “actual” media bias. “Actual” bias is inevitable whenever we tell stories, because we can’t describe everything going on in the world and we can’t perfectly represent others’ perceptions of the world. These biases are easiest to observe in story selection, because we can start with an objective set of possible stories and compare it to an objective set of stories that actually get published.

Perceptions of bias are more relative. In order to label some set of news coverage as “biased,” we need to have some conception in our heads of a “less biased” alternative. People who feel very informed on an issue and take a particular side seem to have an easier time imagining alternatives. Vallone, Ross and Lepper found viewers who described themselves as highly informed and supporting one side saw more bias in the news than less informed people supporting that side. (Today, these groups may be the people who only consume partisan news.) Meanwhile, people describing themselves as well-informed neutrals saw the least media bias of any group.

For journalists, these survey results are hardly surprising. Many veteran reporters are actually reassured by accusations of bias, as long as those slings and arrows come from all directions. Leaving the most active and partisan readers unhappy is often a sign that a reporter did a good job of maintaining their independence. When only one side complains about coverage of a controversial issue, that could be a warning that journalists tilted too far to cater to the other side.

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About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

2 responses to “News Seem Biased Against Your Side? That May Be a Good Thing

  • Ben Jarvis

    Good post Noah. Are there ways that media savvy organizations can manipulate this rule of thumb that you conjecture reporters operate by? (I assume your conjecture is based on first hand experience). That is, can a “noise machines” actually warp reporters’ and editors’ perceptions and decision making processes such that they modify their coverage, when a random survey of the readership would make it evident that no adjustment is needed?

    • Noah

      Ben, I’m looking at the issue of noise machines (circa 2008) in the dissertation chapter I just sent to my committee last week. Most media organizations will target a specific audience, at least to some extent. Local news organizations may skew towards the political preferences of their locality (see Gentzkow and Shapiro). Online news organizations, blogs, etc. target more narrowly. A big part of what the more ideological groups do online is pick and choose which ideas to repeat, after seeing original reporting elsewhere.

      I think what you are getting at is something different, the idea of “working the ref.” Just like baseball players may complain about the strike zone or basketball players often complain about fouls, politicians often complain about media bias to plant a seed in reporters’ minds and possibly get better treatment the next time. When Nixon and Spiro Agnew re-start this playbook for the Republicans in 1968, how much do they genuinely feel the media is biased against them? How much is it calculated strategy? It’s hard to say for sure.

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