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:
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?