How to skew the news without really trying

Posted: Jan 09, 2005 12:00 AM

Journalists do not need an ideological bias to misreport the news. Their simple preference for a good story by itself can lead to error. Just look at environmental reporting. Any nut with a placard can proclaim the End of the World, and reporters will snicker. A nut with a PhD. does the same, and it becomes Page One material.

Thankfully, at least nine out of ten apocalypses have proven wrong.

But you don't have to talk about the end of the world to hype something. . . .

There's less crime than "the well-informed" think there is, for instance. Reporters report the exceptional, but news viewers see these exceptions as the rule, with crime endemic. Thankfully, this is something that John Stossel repeatedly reminds his viewers. Few other journalists do.

Similarly, a recent study has shown that journalists, by concentrating on the biggest spending electoral races, encourage widespread misperception. In a survey conducted by social scientists at MIT and Stanford, it was found that "people with less education (and thus lower tendency to read newspapers) had, on average, the most accurate estimates of the average amount of money spent in politics and the relative importance of interest groups."

Informed readers' opinions on the subject, on the other hand, closely tracked the lopsided reporting they'd been exposed to. They over-estimated the impact of corporate and PAC money; their estimates of amounts spent on campaigns was over seven times that actually spent.

So, on average, the people in the nation with the most accurate view of politics are the least informed. At least on this issue.

Undoubedtly some reporters are so upset by politicians shilling for political investments that they deliberately over-report the top-spending races. But money can't but help be a story, as Hollywood and business reporting indicates. So simply by "going for the story," journalists (biased or not) contribute to a grossly distorted vision of modern political reality.

This is not to deny that journalists are, on average, biased to the left. I've recently argued that this is indeed the case. The evidence is in, and settled. But the extent to which the news gets skewed without conscious attempt is at least as important a problem.

It is also worth considering that journalists become dupes in their own game. Because their job demands concentrating on the exceptions, these exceptions not only skew the news, and the views of news consumers, they skew the views and ideologies of journalists themselves. Journalists come to think the problems that they've hyped are hyper-important, and understandable only in the way they've mis-framed them.

A similar logic may play into another source of journalistic bias, a kind that doesn't come from a set of "values" imbibed from tracts and myths and Renaissance weekends. Pure economic interest ? which many journalists see as the scourge of politics ? may infect journalists, too.

The Mean(ing)s of Production

Not long ago I read an AP story about a new study on term limits. I immediately judged the study's conclusions as rash and unwarranted. But then I read the actual study, and it turned out not that bad, actually. Not as bad as the article, anyway.

In Arizona there's this non-profit organization called ThinkAZ. The group published a study of legislative term limits, which Arizonans passed overwhelmingly years ago. The limits have begun to take effect, and are having some predictable results. Old-timers are being shown the door. Newcomers are coming in. So what does ThinkAZ think?

Well, after a lot of hemming and hawing and hedging, the report concluded that "experience" in the legislature is levelling out, and only what it calls "leadership tenure" has shrunk. In everyday terms, that means that the legislative leadership today is less hidebound and entrenched than it was before the limits ? that is, it's not far from what term limit advocates wanted all along.

But I didn't learn much of this in the AP story. That news account, instead, devoted most of its space to quoting lobbyists and long-term politicians on just how bad term limits were. Colorfully. Great quotes, all very negative to term limits.

So, a study of term limits paints a pretty rosy (or at least innocuous) picture of life under term limits. And a professional journalist paints that picture in as stark and dark terms as possible. Why?

It's not an isolated case, as I've often noted in my Common Sense e-letter. This is standard practice in journalism today: quote a few good sources over and over, and write the story to reinforce the value of the sources quoted.

Now, in politics, it's no surprise that those who seek careers as representatives resent term limits. It's economic self-interest.

It should be no surprise that political journalists, working with those politicians, tend to share their values. Journalistic oppositionalism is something of a myth. It's actually fairly hard to schmooze with people day in and day out, and then oppose them and what they do.

And it gets down to basic economics even more than the natural play of sympathy. As columnist Jill Stewart notes, "disingenuous reporters hate . . . term limits because reporters must woo new legislators every eight years, working their butts off for leaks and cell phone numbers." Journalism depends on access. Term limits, by making old cultivated sources of access irrelevant every few terms, make reporters work harder. Why would they want that?

In journalism, "material interest" is interest in material, as supplied by sources who must be cultivated at no small expense. And like the rational calculators spoken of in economics, journalists try to get as much benefit with as little effort as possible.

This process has been studied exhaustively at the national level. White House reporters, for example, cling to their sources and the good graces of those who grant access. No wonder the Washington press is more lapdog than guard dog. Reporters may begin by snapping at those who feed them information (and disinformation), but soon they become tamed by the feeding schedule and the gambits of their handlers, whether that be a press secretary or an inside snitch.

Reporters' proven trainability has led to a quite thorough manipulation of our wartime news, too. The government does not permit the photographing of caskets coming home. This may seem reasonable, or not, but it is not an example of a conservative news media supporting a war unpopular with the left, as many leftists charge. It's simply a case of the government herding hordes of journalists with simple permissions and prohibitions. Those who don't comply don't get access.

So you can see why reporters in national politics tend to move in packs, rather than as lone wolves: it can be easy for powerful news sources to marginalize a lone reporter. But when an issue seizes all reporters ? and their customers, the news reader and watcher ? with fervor, then and only then do they dare bite the hands that feed them.

Embedded Journalists

Like most players at the game of politics, the journalist anoints his naked, sometimes ugly self-interest as "the public interest." That's how journalists justify their preference for tenured politicians over term limits.

Though the leftish ideological bias of reporters is easily demonstrated, it is tempered by their often pro-establishment bias. After all, as we too often forget, the media is part of the establishment. They can't escape the reality that their power and importance is embedded with the power and importance of the people and institutions they cover. The problems they uncover can't help but have a natural-to-them conclusion: yet another increase in government power.

If you thought the problem with the media was that it is just a bit too left-wing, now you know the problem is much, much worse.