Tag Archives: Trump2016

Media Bias, Trump Voters, and Apples vs. Oranges

When I was in graduate school, I think the most difficult concept for any scholar to measure was media bias. How do we know one story is biased while another one is not? Bias is a great and easy to use concept if we are talking about me shooting a bow and arrow as part of summer camp as a kid. There’s an objective target out there. If my shot keeps missing two inches to the left of where I aim, I can try to correct the physical errors in my shot by aiming two inches to the right of the bull’s-eye.

Objective journalists strive for the bull’s-eye every time too. However, there is no stable, fixed target for journalists to shoot at. Writing news stories involves a lot of judgment calls. Is this source credible? How do I portray them? Reasonable people can disagree about where the target should be. This means bias is an inherently relative concept when we are talking about the media. It’s based on our frame of reference. As I wrote years ago, audiences may want something different than news organizations.

Measuring media bias is awfully difficult because the target isn’t fixed. We have to choose a reasonable target – some standard of objective journalism – before we could measure how far off actual news content is. Choosing the target is almost inevitably a value-laden judgment. Even “objective” targets lead to value-laden interpretations of the results. For example, let’s say we want to compare news organizations to members of Congress. It takes a lot of work to going through the Congressional Record to build the target. All the work may not be worth it. Congress isn’t a truly “objective” target because it has a majority party. A centrist newspaper would be to the left of Congress today, even if it is closer to the average ideology of Americans.

Since looking for “objective” targets to measure media bias can be a lot of work for little reward, that’s not how most scholars have tried to study journalistic bias. It’s much easier to look at two different media organizations and measure their content relative to each other. Another favorite strategy is to choose two similar news events, then study how the apple received different news coverage than the orange. These strategies are easy to do. They don’t require special math skills for the audience to follow the argument.

Unfortunately, the “compare apples and oranges” style of study distorts our view of the world. Imagine comparing how Vox Media and Breitbart covered the recent scandals facing the Trump administration. One media organization is on the left and the other is on the right, so obviously they will cover the scandal differently. That doesn’t mean either organization makes for a good bull’s-eye. Both media organizations built their brand on ideological takes; neither is trying to be in the center!

Scholars are human, so we will probably have more sympathy towards either the apple or the orange in an “apples and oranges” study of media bias. If you read one of these studies, you will notice that they look for cases where the differences are relatively large. If the apple and the orange receive similar news coverage, no one cares. Apples and oranges studies are good at describing differences in coverage in relative detail. However, these studies lack an anchor. The only way to say that the apple is biased while the orange isn’t is if we really, really like oranges. (I like trolling with the apples and oranges metaphor because I prefer kiwi!)

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Whenever I read a pundit or an academic study comparing the attitudes of Trump voters to the attitudes of Clinton voters, I can’t help but see the same problem. Of course there will be some differences between Trump and Clinton voters. For example, a lot of people have focused on the large difference between Trump and Clinton voters on race. Trump announced his candidacy by disparaging Mexican immigrants as rapists and undesirables. It’s easy to see Trump, see a gap in racial attitudes between voters, and assume this is a story of increasingly racist Republican voters. On the other hand, Trump’s explicit racism and the Black Lives Matter movement may have combined to make White Democrats more progressive on race than they were four years ago.

When we separate everyone in to two categories, all we can do is see the difference between those categories. We can see race polarized voters. However, it’s hard to know just how much racism pushed voters in to Trump’s camp, as opposed to anti-racism pushing other voters to Clinton, just by making a comparison.

The easiest way to write about statistical models actually makes this problem harder. To try and explain this, let’s create a quick and dirty regression model from the American National Election Study. I used age, race (white/nonwhite), gender and having a college degree as control variables. (The publicly available version of the ANES doesn’t have income yet, so take all the results here with a grain of salt. I’m not looking for an optimal model, just a teaching tool.)

Social scientists mainly look at racism via a scale of “symbolic racism.” These are four questions that social scientists started using in the 1990s after it seemed clear that people would not truthfully answer more direct questions about whether Blacks should be discriminated against. The symbolic racism scale comes from a time when social scientists almost exclusively focused on Black-White differences. I will get to Trump’s explicit racism against Mexican-Americans in a separate post. Let’s start with the well-established symbolic racism scale. All these questions are on a 5 point agree to disagree scale:

  • Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
  • Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
  • Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
  • It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough, if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

We put these items in a scale, since the average response to four related questions is probably more reliable than a single question. The scale still ranges 1-5. I re-ordered responses so low values are respondents who feel additional steps are necessary to end the systematic disadvantages that African Americans face. High values represent racial resentment. To try and illustrate the strength of symbolic racism, I added a respondent’s political ideology on a 1-7 scale (1=strong liberal, 7=strong conservative). I am using a logistic regression model, where positive coefficients represent groups who voted Trump and negative coefficients represent voting for someone else (not necessarily Clinton). Non-voters are dropped from the sample.

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If we were interpreting this model quickly, we’d look and see that the coefficient for symbolic racism is relatively large and statistically significant at the .001 level. As a voter’s symbolic racism goes up, the likelihood they voted for Trump goes up by a fairly considerable margin. Since the symbolic racism scale goes from 1 to 5, the difference isn’t as big as the difference between strong liberals and strong conservatives. Nonwhites were considerably less likely to vote Trump, and we could talk about other control variables.

At this point it’s very easy to point a finger at Trump voters and accuse them of being racists. The average Trump voter scored 3.92 on the 1-5 scale for symbolic racism. It’s an open and shut case, right? More racism causes more voting for Trump.

When I ran my regression model this quick and dirty way, I set a very unusual bull’s-eye for comparison. Strong liberals are the baseline for political ideology, because they have the lowest numerical value. However, only 3.6 percent of the respondents identified as strong liberals. Because symbolic racism is coded 1 to 5, the minimum value on the symbolic racism scale is the bull’s-eye for this regression model. It looks like symbolic racism causes an increase in voting for Trump because the value can only go up. Let’s see what happens if we reverse the symbolic racism scale to create an anti-racism index, then use it in the regression:

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All the values in this regression are identical, but the coefficient for the anti-racism index is negative. In other words, as people disagree with the statements in the symbolic racism scale, they are less likely to vote for Trump. The constant changed considerably too. You may have noticed the very low constant in the first regression model. Since logit is a multiplicative model, that low constant actually matters a great deal. However, it’s still very easy to overlook if we are skimming results. I often do!

The bull’s-eye in this model is weird. I’m comparing everyone to a hypothetical strong liberal with the maximum score on the symbolic racism index. That combination probably doesn’t exist in the real world, but that’s not the point. This model exists to show that we could just as easily make a regression model showing opposition to racist assumptions made someone less likely to vote for Trump.

Regression coefficients tell us that there’s a large difference in vote preference between people who scored high and people who scored low on the symbolic racism index. However, regression coefficients can’t tell us which end of the scale is more meaningful. When we compare groups of people, regression models don’t tell us what the bull’s eye should be. We build assumption in to the model, and these assumptions shade how we initially interpret results.

Thankfully, the American National Election Study has asked these symbolic racism questions on a fairly regular basis since 1992. We don’t need to make an assumption about whether symbolic racism surged upwards among Republicans in 2016. We can just check the data. In the interests of space, I will present changes in the index instead of going through each of the four questions. Note that this graph measures party identification not who someone voted for. It includes non-voters. “Independents” who lean towards a party tend to act like partisans, so they are included as partisans here.

sracism-timeline

Every group reported somewhat lower symbolic racism in 2016 as opposed to 2012’s high water mark. This doesn’t really seem to fit with Trump, his base, or the regression results from earlier. One possibility is that racists are learning “politically correct” ways to answer these questions. This happened with more explicit questions about racism. However, there is little evidence that Trump’s base has tried to hide or give safer socially desirable answers in public opinion polls.

The biggest change in symbolic racism scores for 2016 is White Democrats’ large decrease, moving to nearly the same level as non-white Democrats. The symbolic racism score for White Democrats was relatively unchanged from 1992 to 2012. Trump’s campaign may have polarized voters more than it pulled them towards racism. Explicit racists got more of a mainstream voice in the Republican nominee. At the same time, whites who did not want to endorse racial resentment may have moved to more explicit anti-racist positions.

We see such a large difference in symbolic racism scores between Republicans and Democrats in 2016 largely because White Democrats scores’ dropped so dramatically. The regression model that says an increase in symbolic racism made it more likely someone would vote for Trump is technically correct. But that’s not the best way to interpret the data, since the average Republican actually had a slight decrease in their symbolic racism score too. People with the most racial resentment were probably voting for any Republican. The real story in the ANES appears to be a group of white voters moving away from racial resentment, and then voting against Trump because of his explicit racism.

The “secret sauce” to quantitative research is being able to make good arguments and inferences from the data we have. It’s not that hard to build a quick and dirty stats model just by relying on our assumptions of how variables “should” work. Imagine that model fits our assumptions perfectly, like the symbolic racism-Trump voter model. It’s awfully tempting not to dig deeper. Apples to oranges comparisons play in to some of our worst cognitive biases, because it’s so easy to treat one group as the default and the other as the weird thing that must be explained. The tribalism and hyper-partisanship of today’s politics only makes this bias worse.

I spent so much time thinking about apples to oranges comparisons of media content when people were searching for evidence of “bias” that I’ve always been a little more skeptical of the logic behind these comparisons. It’s not a skill that I developed specifically to look at partisan politics. It’s not a skill that I developed from years of stats classes either. The ability not to rubber stamp apples to oranges comparisons that fit our preconceptions is something different. In some ways its harder. It takes courage to acknowledge our preconceptions may be wrong.

In other ways, the ability to question our biases is easier to learn. We don’t need special classes in stats to develop this skill. Every year I taught stats there were several students who walked in to the class having mastered it. When I was a teaching assistant, I think the class that actually focused the most on this skill was a freshman level introduction to linguistic anthropology course. We were going over differences between how men and women communicate. We didn’t just cover differences and debate nature vs. nurture. We spent more time going over whether there are certain stereotypical differences that we expect to see, so those are the only differences we remember. Naive assumptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies unless we consciously try to check them. The good news is we can all learn to check them.


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.


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.


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.