Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Best Remedy to Media Bias

Recently I was discussing a topic I have addressed in the past*, the topic of media bias, when I had an interesting experience. I have often written that, though I am confident in my positions, were I to encounter evidence to the contrary, convincing evidence, I would be more than willing to change them. Well, for once, something along those lines took place. Where I had imagined I had thoroughly thought through and examined a topic, a bit of discussion convinced me, not that I was wrong, precisely, but rather that I had not thought about the topic enough, that I had been somewhat superficial in my analysis and needed to rethink things.

The problem is, while discussing media bias, I was doing so in the rather superficial terms used by the popular debate, and not truly thinking about what that term meant. In my recent debate, realizing the individual with whom I was debating was using the term differently than I, it struck me that "bias" is a term with several potential meanings, and thus, it may be beneficial to return to our discussion of correcting media bias, and the impossibility thereof, in terms of my new understanding of bias.

As I see it, there are three possible ways in which we can discuss "bias" in the media, one of which is unacceptable -- and is probably the original meaning of media's claims to be "unbiased" -- one of which is acceptable, although often denied -- and is the source of confusion over debates about "media bias" -- and a final type of bias, which is sometimes denied, but sometimes not just accepted, but even openly announced.

The first bias, the one which simply is incompatible with any professional media, is the bias which distorts facts, or even invents false reports. This sort of "bias" is clearly unacceptable, and probably is the origins of the claims by reports to be "free of bias". As I shall argue, and have before, while the claim probably started with the elimination of this sort of bias, it was, unfortunately confused with the next sort, creating an unacceptable, superhuman standard for the media to uphold. Obviously, any discussion of media should start by denouncing this sort of bias, and I believe we can agree any media which hides or distorts facts is unacceptably deceptive. In the sense of eliminating this sort of deception, I am willing to accept that an "unbiased media" is a proper goal, but only in that sense.

The second sort of media bias is the one where I believe the confusion arises. This is the bias inherent in applying any sort of interpretation to the raw data. Every such interpretation relies upon some set of beliefs, as it is impossible to interpret anything without an underlying theory. Even if you consult "experts" for the interpretation, the selection of experts is, in itself, a bias, as there a near infinite number of possible experts, and doubtless a reporter will rarely consult more than two or three. Thus, any sort of real reporting, anything other than simple "police blotter" type factual blurbs, will inevitably bring into play the beliefs of the reporter.

Now, many may claim this sort of "bias" can be removed, and the reporter present a fair and evenhanded interpretation, I argue, as I always have, that such a claim is simply nonsense. A reporter may be able to present the opinions of a few individuals, but even then, selecting which opinions represent the range of valid opinions is, in itself, dependent on one's underlying beliefs. Why present the Democrat and Republican talking points instead of the Communists and Nazis? It may make sense as the "majority opinion", but that still argues there is some greater significance to the opinion of the majority than any specific minority. And most reporting is not simply a survey of the opinions of others, it presents some interpretation of its own. And that sort of bias is impossible to remove. Yet, because we have confused this bias with the first type, we have come to imagine removing it is a worthy goal. In fact, have come to believe it is foundation of good reporting.

As I argued earlier, I think eliminating this sort of delusion, the belief that an individual can somehow report "factually" unchanged by his beliefs, is simply absurd, and we should instead recognize the role individual beliefs play in reporting.

Finally, let us look at the third type of bias, the sort that is sometimes hidden, sometimes public. This bias is the bias inherent in what one chooses to report. In some cases, as I said, this sort of bias is proclaimed, as in photography magazines obviously centering on stories of interest to photographers, or the organs of various political or professional groups focusing on topics of interest to the membership. That sort of bias exists without apology, and rightly so. Would we want a photography magazine to pretend to be unbiased by reporting on local traffic laws or the state of the IMF? No, we accept that certain journals are aimed at certain markets.

On the other hand,many supposedly unbiased newspapers and broadcast media outlets exhibit a similar bias in what they report, but one they fail to acknowledge. For example, when an editorial board leans left, especially on gun control, we will often see extensive reporting on gun violence, innocent bystanders and accidental shootings, but few stories on crimes prevented by guns. On the other hand, when the editorial board slants the other way, this trend will be reversed. No acknowledges such bias, there is imply an understanding among reporters and editors on what is and is not "newsworthy".

This sort of bias often joins with the second sort. For example, take our pro-gun control editorial board. If a report comes out saying gun control laws correlate with higher crime, it will undoubtedly be treated as a minor story, if reported at all. But, beyond that, such a perspective will likely not be used as the foundation for interpreting facts in other stories, and experts who support such a position will either be ignored, or treated as representing minority opinions. And, obviously, an anti-gun control editor would slant things exactly the other way, treating the report as a major news event, and relying upon its findings as justification for a specific interpretation of events.

In either case, it is unlikely the editors will ever recognize this bias in the choices they make about what to report. They may not even recognize it themselves. They may simply believe that the stories they report are the truly important ones, and those they ignore are not worthy of attention. Still, it is a form of bias, and one that forms a sort of synergy with the second type, as it is very easy to support a bias in interpretation by simply ignoring stories which run contrary to that bias.

What we need to recognize is, while the first bias -- that is explicit falsehood -- can be eliminated, and should be, the other types are, as I have been arguing, not just pervasive, but impossible to eliminate. After all, one cannot simply "report all the facts" as the amount of possible facts to be reported is infinite. And thus one must select, which inherently displays some bias in deciding which are and are not important. Similarly, all but the most minimalist reporting must contain some interpretation, and interpretation inherently rests upon some underlying philosophy, one cannot avoid it. And thus, beliefs cannot be excluded from reporting, which means bias is inherent in all reporting. It is unavoidable.

Which is why I still reach the same conclusion I did before. Rather than persist in our delusion that truly unbiased reporting, reporting of facts alone without any personal bias, is desirable, or even possible, I would argue we should simply make such bias open, admit what the public already recognizes, that a given paper or channel is slanted left or right, supports this party or that, believes in this or that economic theory and so on. If we do so, not only do we stop insulting the viewers' intelligence by denying a bias that is all too evident, but we allow the viewers to understand the theories underlying a given report, and to adjust their interpretation accordingly. If we recognize the bias of an outlet, readers can then take the reports of several opposed philosophies and average them to reach something closer to the truth. Or, at the very least, find those outlets which reinforce their own biases, and find news which, if biased, at least reinforces their own preconceptions.

Either way, by admitting to the biases which everyone except the journalists themselves recognize**, reporters will regain some credibility they lose through absurd denials of an all too evident bias.


* See "Some Thoughts on the Media", "The Press Versus the Nation", "The Death of Impartial Media", "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting", "The Failure of Peer Review", "Intellect and Politics", "The Path of Least Resistance" and "The Rebirth of Skepticism".

** Actually, journalists are amusing. They are happy to recognize the bias in their opposite number, with "mainstream" reporters denouncing Fox's "bias" (and v.v) while failing to recognize their own.

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