Tag Archives: Range of Opinion

So Trump Had a Press Conference…

I’ve mainly been working on non-politics projects lately, so I haven’t seen any of the Donald Trump press conference yet. I’m not going to try and assess his performance or the news coverage of that event specifically until I watch the film. On the other hand, I have published on presidential press conferences, so I wanted to cover a few broad rules of the setting that should translate to this week’s press conference or any future press conference:

1) Subsequent news coverage will focus on what Trump said, as opposed to getting a wide balance of opinion, unless a news organization dedicates a lot of space to the press conference

One of the main things I wanted to study in my dissertation was whether politicians could do things that affects the balance of opinion found in news coverage. I looked at press conferences from 1891-2009 since we can compare what was said to the subsequent news coverage, which is rare in news interviews. I measured balance of opinion as a proportion of quoted words from the president to all quoted words in news coverage of an event. The New York Times‘ average proportion was 0.757. In other words, nearly 76 percent of the quoted words came from the president versus 24 percent for everyone else. ABC Nightly News’ proportion was 0.695.

I found surprisingly few variables affect this ratio. As we might imagine, if a president has a joint press conference with another foreign leader they tend to get some quotes in the news as well. However, there was no significant partisan difference after controlling for different ways that presidents set up their press conferences. Approval ratings have tiny, insignificant effects. One peer reviewer was convinced that presidents who had been in the news a lot wouldn’t have as much control. After weeks of gathering additional data I found this had literally 0 impact.

The main thing that leads to more balance of opinion is whether news organizations leave enough space to quote people other than the president. When the Times or ABC only published one short story, that story would only try to summarize the main things the president said. The single most common outcome is a completely one-sided story. More important conferences will get multiple stories, each focused on a different issue or incident. This is when we get more sources.

2) The questions and the subsequent writeup are two different things

Press conferences are a performance. Since presidential press conferences are on TV, there’s more room for journalists to perform, not just presidents. Many journalists want to brand themselves as tough interrogators, holding presidents accountable. With the rise of partisan news, the image of holding people accountable has become less about “I’d grill everyone, even my own mother!” and more about partisan allegiances.

Working journalists know that they need to produce some story at the end. If they keep pressing the president on one topic, he may cancel the press conference or simply not say anything interesting. Since one press conference could lead to five stories on five different topics, there is pressure to move on instead of harping on a particular topic. The more a president opens up about a topic, the more there is for a journalist to write about. Aggressive flashes during the press conference can turn to deference afterwards. On the other hand, exchanges that seem innocuous as they happen may attract much more attention after the conference, when people can review the tapes.

3) The performance is news

Journalists have written about how people conducted themselves in on-the-record presidential press conferences for as long as presidents have held them on the record. I looked at these stories dating back to the Times’ very first story about Eisenhower doing one press conference for print media then inviting news cameras in for a second, shorter conference that repeated most of the same questions. Day-to-day news reporting in the Times and other objective news organizations follows a strict rule of avoiding judgments about a source’s moral character. Press conferences are an exception. Someone’s performance and character is fair game. One of the more common strategies is to have some reporters focus on the literal facts while one reporter focuses on the conference as a performance.

I assume a lot of people are writing about Trump’s performance as we speak. You may think journalists focusing on theatre is another one of those unusual Trump things. It isn’t. Journalists only gave a few years before hammering away at Eisenhower for poor performances in front of the camera:

“One purpose of today’s Presidential news conference was to promote acceptance of the Administration’s new Middle East security policy, but two incidents occurred there that are likely to have the opposite effect.”

Throughout the article the reporter focused on Eisenhower’s communication style: “casual remarks…that implied that the United States might well have to use small atomic weapons” and his “extemporaneous” answer to another question. Five months later, Eisenhower’s “casual dismissal” of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s appearance on CBS was used to imply “the tendency of the Administration to continue regarding propaganda as a nuisance rather than as an opportunity.”

4) Public opinion doesn’t affect journalists

My adviser Steve Clayman – along with several colleagues – studied whether unpopular presidents face more aggressive questioning. He found no relationship between approval ratings and any form of journalistic aggressiveness. I found no relationship between approval ratings and how much attention a press conference gets or the balance of opinion in those stories. It’s probably a good thing that the press will not be more deferential to a popular president. On the other hand, this means Trump will not get additional scrutiny just because he is deeply unpopular.


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.

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.

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…

Why is Coverage of the Trump Campaign So…Predictable?

Apparently this is the week that people have gotten together to write think pieces about how “the media” is confused and outraged by Donald Trump’s  frequent lying. Trump’s bogus claim that Whites are more likely to be shot by Blacks than Whites caused NBC’s Meet the Press staff to call Trump “the post truth 2016 candidate”. Both the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards have made similar complaints. Even Matt Taibbi wrote a think piece in Rolling Stone about the growth of lying in the campaign:

Until recently, the narrative of stories like this has been predictable. If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies… That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it. Along with vindication, apology and suffering, there now exists a fourth way forward for the politician spewing whoppers: Blame the backlash on media bias and walk away a hero.

How could campaign news go off the rails so badly in 2015? Most explanations start with Donald Trump as an individual. Because he is outside the mainstream political system and independently wealthy, he does not need to rely on the resources that political parties or traditional news coverage can offer a candidate. Trump is free to say what he wants. On the other hand, I am not surprised in the least that a candidate has built a campaign largely on identity and personality, while bypassing traditional media as much as possible. I wrote the following seven months ago – before Trump started his campaign – as a concluding prediction to my dissertation:

One possible trajectory is that identity politics continue to become a larger part of online political discourse, as media sites cater to audience demand. New media sites have incentives for outrage and other first person narratives, which dovetail with discussions of identity and belonging. Traditional media sites may show a similar kind of selection bias – treating individual statements from candidates about identity politics as more newsworthy – while maintaining an objective presentation of these statements. Candidates may embrace identity politics as a way to stand out in primaries. In this scenario, both sides may harden around issues of identity. People who use social media to express identity politics may develop a “ragehole” – similar to a journalist’s newshole, these social media users produce a certain number of posts on identity per week. These posts mainly criticize perceived transgressors. Social media users who often post about identity may seek out like-minded individuals and purge opposing partisans from their social networks. People who do not enjoy identifying with either echo chamber may get sick of the mudslinging. They may compare friends filling the “ragehole” at a relatively constant rate to a car alarm that is constantly ringing, and decide their only option is to walk away from following the political process. The cycle would reinforce itself, as the only people left following politics are people who enjoy identifying with a side and some of the mudslinging.

Donald Trump’s campaign could not appear in a vacuum. Remember he considered running in 2012 but dropped out with little impact on the race. Thankfully, even famed media critics like Jay Rosen are starting to draw from organizational sociology. He argues there is heavy institutional isomorphism, drawing from DiMaggio and Powell’s famous paper in organizational theory. Reporters in large national news organizations have similar training, they often move from one job to another within the same field of leading US news organizations, therefore we would expect conformity. Rosen goes on to say:

“DiMaggio and Powell note that isomorphism is especially likely in institutions with ambiguous or unclear goals. That describes the teams of reporters, editors and producers who create most of the campaign coverage we see.”

Unfortunately, Rosen doesn’t really get what organizational theorists means by “goal ambiguity.” Like a lot of things in academia, this has a specific technical meaning. Journalists know they want to cover “newsworthy” stories and attract a large audience. But how do we define newsworthiness? Its actually one of the hardest things for journalists to do. This is what “goal ambiguity” means. Rosen is far off base when he accuses mainstream journalists of having a “weak sense of purpose,” as if goal ambiguity is some sort of ideological failing.

As I first outlined in an article I published four years ago, goal ambiguity is a common cognitive problem in news. All news coverage and political media content (including hot takes) is fundamentally ambiguous. What do we write about? How do we write about it? Which combination will actually get readers? The range of possible combinations is infinite. Any news organization that stops to debate them all will be so paralyzed by indecision that they will never finish one story before the next event occurs. News organizations need to establish certain signals and criteria to triage potential stories, assign reporters, and actually produce content.

In my article, I find things like holding a press conference outside Washington DC or holding it in prime time provide powerful signals. Even as technology improves and timely coverage from halfway across the world is no longer a technical challenge, the New York Times treated White House press conferences as more formal and important. An increase in the total volume of news coverage was the most consistent predictor of increased balance in those stories – writing full news stories instead of just transcribing the president said. Journalists appear to decide “how important is this story?” and then decide how many sources to include.

I think this example shows how my outlook is very different than Rosen and David Roberts at Vox. Rosen and Roberts start with some genuine insight about how the institutional relationship between candidates and the traditional campaign press corps have fundamentally changed. However, they both use their insight as a way to lead us to their favorite axe to grind. Rosen, as always, wants reporters to have some “sense of purpose.” Roberts, fitting in with the Vox brand, argues the problem is “really” the truthiness of the conservative movement. [Let’s save whether Roberts is an ideal case of progressive truthiness for a separate post.]

Sadly, there is real insight that Rosen and Roberts are sacrificing to pursue their ideological arguments. The fundamental premise of my dissertation is that both news and the more ideological/opinionated media are highly predictable. Writers do not create media events. When Trump gives a speech, he says something, and writers respond to it in various ways. Some reactions may more analytic, focusing on public policy or Trump’s electability. Other reactions may be more emotional. There is such a wide range of ways to write about the Trump campaign or any other media event that writers need to have a strong set of rules in place for how to handle these contingencies before they occur.

Journalism fundamentally operates on an if : then logic. If a newsmaker does X, then we will respond with news coverage Y. It is the only way to do the job. If reporters had to make ad hoc evaluations of each news event, they could never meet deadlines. In my dissertation, I argue partisan media also operates under an if : then logic, just with different premises for if and then. As I tell my students, once we understand journalism as a process of sorting through ambiguity, its probably easier to predict news coverage than their college GPA.

Facebook Dives Into the Echo Chamber

Earlier today, several in house researchers at Facebook published a study in Science regarding how much users engage with links that cut against their ideological beliefs. There are already a lot of thoughtful posts on this article, since there’s a lot to chew on. The basic finding isn’t too surprising: people are less likely to “engage” with links that do not correspond to their stated political beliefs. The authors argue there is a three-step process:

  1. We only see links posted by friends and other pages we follow, and they are not a random group. People tend to congregate on Facebook based on their political ideology.
  2. Facebook’s algorithm does not place all possible stories on our “News Feed” when we log in. It favors posts shared, liked and commended on by friends. The authors do not fully disclose how the algorithm works, but they do find it cuts down on how much people see stories that cross ideological boundaries. 5% of stories were screened out for self-identified liberals, and 8% for self-identified conservatives.
  3. Facebook users don’t click on every link. As I’ll discuss later, Facebook users ignore the vast majority of links to political stories. After controlling for things like the position of the link (people are much more likely to click on the first link when they log in), liberals were 6% less likely to click on a link mainly shared by conservatives. conservatives were 17% less likely to click on a link mainly shared by liberals.

This process makes sense for an individual story, but it’s a troubling model for studying months’ worth of Facebook user behavior. As Christian Sandvig points out, Facebook’s algorithm is based on what users engage with. In other words, if I tend to click on all of the fantasy baseball links I see in May, I will be more likely to see fantasy baseball links that people share in June. I’ll probably see some fantasy football links too, even though I want no part of fantasy football.

Separating step 3 from step 2 is problematic, but it appears to be the authors’ main goal in interpreting their results: “We conclusively establish that on average in the context of Facebook, individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” To continue with the sports reference, this is where sociologists start throwing penalty flags. The interpretation found in the scholarly journal just happens to be the same argument that Andy Mitchell, the director of news and media partnerships for Facebook, gave when facing criticism last month. (See Jay Rosen’s criticism here.) As I argued weeks ago, Facebook isn’t in a position to get the benefit of the doubt. We’ll get back to the problems of how to interpret the article’s findings in a minute. First, it is important to understand how the group that the authors claim to study and the group they actually study are very different.

As Eszter Hargittai and other sociologists have pointed out, 91 percent of Facebook users were excluded from this study because they did not explicitly disclose their political ideology on their Facebook biography. Users were excluded for providing ideologies that weren’t explicitly liberal or conservative – a user who said their politics “are none of your damn business” would be dropped. It is unclear how self-identified “independents” were treated in this study (none of the posts I have seen mentioned this). My political scientist friends would like me to point out that self-identified independents are often treated as “moderates” when they are actually covert partisans. Users who did not log on at least four times a week were dropped as well.

Once Hargittai added all the exclusions, just under three percent of Facebook users were included in the study. As she argues, the 3% figure is far more important than the 10 million observations:

“Can publications and researchers please stop being mesmerized by large numbers and go back to taking the fundamentals of social science seriously? In related news, I recently published a paper asking “Is Bigger Always Better? Potential Biases of Big Data Derived from Social Network Sites” that I recommend to folks working through and with big data in the social sciences.”

The 3% of Facebook users who are included in the study are probably different from the 97% who are not.At this point, it would probably be helpful to separate the two groups

What Happens for People in the Sample?

One of the hardest things for a scholar to do is publish findings that aren’t surprising. We already know that people tend to have social networks with disproportionately like-minded people. The biggest effect that the Facebook researchers found is homophily. We don’t see a random selection of stories when we log on to Facebook because our friends aren’t a random group of humans. We see stories from people who we are friends with – assuming we haven’t muted those friends because of their postings – and from pages we follow. Most media scholars have found some degree of self-selection, and found it is most prominent online. Neither the study’s authors or critics want to emphasize this point, but the results seem pretty clear in the graphic below (reproduced from the article):

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 6.30.17 PM

Critics focus on the role of the algorithm (the “exposed” line in this graphic) versus the role of users choosing to ignore stories. When I first read the term, I thought “users’ choice” included choice of friends (the big drop for “potential from network” in the graphic). Apparently this only refers to whether users choose to click on a story or not (the last line of the graphic). It does not refer to whether users choose to unfriend or block a user because of their political beliefs. Maybe I’m thinking of this differently because I recently talked with someone who chose to unfriend everyone who didn’t share her political views. If we include adding and dropping friends to the big ledger of “user decisions” and Facebook’s friend suggestion algorithm to the big ledger of “algorithmic influence,” it is much easier to see why the authors would argue user behavior is so important, but I may be giving them more credit than they deserve.

The “News Feed” algorithm picks favorites, and we don’t fully know how, which is very troubling. On the other hand, it is only picking from the narrow subset of stories our friends have posted, and that may be a very narrow ideological range. As I wrote weeks ago, Facebook clearly has its thumb on the scale by not showing everything on a user’s “News Feed” when they log in. Facebook’s in-house researchers acknowledge some degree of algorithmic censorship of stories that are mainly shared by the other side instead of the user’s side. The effect is 5% for liberals and 8% for conservatives. This looks like Facebook has its thumb on the scale. However, the weight comes from who we are friends with.

Click-throughs as the End Measure? Really?

The emphasis on people clicking links was surprising to me, because “clickthroughs” are relatively rare. This study only included people who provide their political ideology on their Facebook pages. These users are likely to be more engaged with politics. We would expect them to be more likely to click on political links than other users. But the overall click-through rate reported in this article was only 6.53 percent. As many scholars and writers are finding, social media “engagement” often has a very low correlation with reading the link. In many cases, the low correlation is driven by posts that get a lot of likes and comments, even though people don’t read the story that gets linked to.

Imagine someone linked to a story about Hillary Clinton’s speech where she advocated for more pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, imagine the person sharing the story is a conservative, arguing against Clinton’s “pro-amnesty” position. Other conservatives may rally around the Facebook post, seeing it as an opportunity to voice their complaints about Clinton instead of new information to be consumed to make more informed decisions in the democratic process. This behavior happens on both sides of the aisle. Progressives may post a link about Rand Paul’s avoiding a campaign stop in Baltimore for the same reason.

What About People Excluded from the Study?

 97% of Facebook users were excluded from the study. Some of these users will be just as partisan and ideological as the people who were included in the study; they just declined to put their ideology in their bio page. Other users may be less ideological or less interested in politics. Because most people interested in Facebook’s effect on the news are interested in political news, it is easy to overlook the fact that a lot of people who write online may not be all that interested in politics. (In my dissertation, I found a strong preference for bloggers publishing non-political phrases instead of political phrases during the time period of the 2008 election, but there are critical methodological differences between repeating phrases and showing holistic interest.)

If people do not engage in posting political stories or reading most political links on Facebook, would we expect them to learn anything about politics when they log on? I’m not sure if any research has been published specifically on this question yet, but studies of television “infotainment” suggest the answer is yes. Matthew Baum and Angela Jamison found that people who avoided the news but regularly watched shows like Oprah and David Letterman were better informed about politics than people who avoided the news and Oprah or Letterman. (Full disclosure, I worked as an RA for years on a project with Tim Groeling and Matt Baum.) Watching the news or reading the newspaper provides more information than “soft news,” but soft news can be surprisingly effective in communicating the broad strokes of current events.

Skimming Facebook may also give people the broad strokes of current events. People who have read their Facebook wall in the last two weeks may know there was a riot or uprising in Baltimore, even if they do not regularly watch the news or click on links to news stories. The difference in Facebook is exposure to political information is largely contingent on who your friends are, and your friends are more likely than not to congregate on the same side of the political spectrum. Thus, some people may have heard about the Baltimore riot while others heard about the Baltimore uprising.

Ironically, it is Mitchell, the Facebook executive, who offers the best advice on how to treat Facebook as a potential news source:

“We have to create a great experience for people on Facebook and give them the content they’re interested in. And like I said earlier, Facebook should be a complimentary news source.”

The problem with this is skimming Facebook could make it easy for people to feel like they are getting informed without actually being informed.

Covering the Ambiguity of Police Violence

A police officer gives some sort of instruction to someone who was not a criminal suspect. Maybe he was telling someone to move out of the way or get on the ground. Accounts differ about what happens next. However, everyone acknowledges that the encounter ended when a police officer used physical force. The other person in the incident is either seriously wounded or killed by police.

The shooting of Michael Brown shows how difficult these incidents are for journalists to cover. Witnesses say that Brown had raised his hands over his head to show he was not holding a weapon before he was shot and killed by a police officer in in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. A day later, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that Brown “physically assaulted the police officer.” Since journalists weren’t there, they have to try and assess the credibility of each source. Even if an objective journalist is going to cover both sides, she has to decide which position will be presented first, knowing that this will favor one side or the other. Most journalists started with the one aspect of the incident that is not under debate: Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot to death by a police officer.

Numerous studies have shown that crime coverage is biased against blacks at nearly every stage of a criminal case, so it may seem unusual that Brown would get sympathetic headlines. (See link at the end for teaching tools on racial bias.) However, communication scholar Regina Lawrence argues that the use of force often disrupts the normally cozy relationships between metro news reporters and their police informants. Most news events are planned in advance, which helps the event planner control the story. Breaking crime news is not planned in advance, but police departments keep careful control over what information is shared with the news media. Maintaining control is easy, because criminal suspects do not want to tell journalists their side of the story before availing themselves of the legal system.

Officer-involved violence is different, because police departments trying to portray the use of force as “justified” may have to compete with a wide range of community leaders and activists challenging the police’s use of force as “brutality.” Inner city residents, particularly black and Hispanic residents, may have to live in fear of police violence on a daily basis. After cases of police violence, journalists may become more interested in the experiences of the disenfranchised as a way to represent “both sides” of the issue. Protests like the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter can get widespread attention as a specific protest to the Ferguson shooting, even if they would otherwise be ignored. (More abstractly, journalists deciding an event is newsworthy may create opportunities for additional sources to get in the news, as I found in the case of presidential press conferences.)

It may be natural to look at the proliferation of specialized online media sites and social media and conclude that the balance of power has shifted even more toward activists protesting against police brutality since Lawrence published her book in 2000. However, it is important to remember that the Internet is just a tool. It is up to people to use the Internet to publicize incidents, just as people need to actively solicit attention from traditional media organizations. If we look back to the Trayvon Martin case, it took over a week for that case to get any national media attention. Martin’s family hired civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump to help publicize the case – and explain the civil rights issues to a national audience – as he pursued a civil case against George Zimmerman. (Crump was retained by the Brown family on Sunday night.)

The biggest difference in media between the Michael Brown shooting, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the various cases Lawrence describes is the presence of several witnesses who argued the shooting was not justified a day before any police agency offered an official justification. Witnesses immediately defined the incident as the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Unlike most incidents, the police had to respond to a dominant narrative told by members of the community. In the last 24 hours, the police response appears to have created enough doubt that CNN posted a story with the headline “What we know about Michael Brown’s shooting” that began with a focus on what reporters do not know:

It’s a case of he said, he said. The accounts of why a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, this weekend couldn’t be more disparate.

One side says the teenager was surrendering, his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, when the officer opened fire. Authorities counter that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.

The trajectory of media coverage regarding this police shooting may be the opposite of other police shootings, where the official statements from police come first and then get called in to question. In this case, it appears to be the accounts of local witnesses and other residents of Ferguson who started the narrative and are now being called in to question. Coverage of community protests has focused on violence, disruption and looting (by people who may not be connected to the protests) instead of the message of the protesters. This is fairly typical of protest coverage.

It will be interesting to see whether this case stays at the forefront of the public consciousness, given the wide range of international crises and yesterday’s shocking death of Robin Williams attracting a large share of audience attention. Activists will need to push nationally, not just locally, to keep this civil rights case in the public eye. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown may be a powerful way to make the case for civil rights and equal treatment, because it also holds journalists accountable for pervasive biases in the images they choose to represent racial minorities who get caught up in the American criminal justice system.

* In my teaching, I found students got a lot out of Travis Dixon’s book chapter “Teaching you to love fear: Television news and racial stereotypes in a punishing democracy. In S. J. Hartnett (Ed.), Challenging the prison Industrial complex: Activism, arts & educational alternatives (pp. 106-123). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.” Dixon summarizes many studies on racial bias in reporting on the news, similar to a review article, but targeted more directly for an undergraduate audience.