TCS Daily

Media Bias Comes From Viewers Like You

By Tyler Cowen - November 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Both left-wing and right-wing commentators lament media bias. The right wing cites the predominant Democratic orientations - often 80 to 90 percent - of major journalists. The left wing cites the right wing pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh, or the growing success of Fox News.


Why do the major media sometimes slant to the left, and other times slant to the right? The answer is simple: viewers want them to. We look to the media for entertainment, drama, and titillation before objectivity. Journalists, to get ahead, must produce marketable stories with some kind of emotional slant, which typically will have broader political implications. The result: it looks like media bias when in fact journalists, operating in a highly competitive environment, are simply doing their best to attract an audience.


Consider the war with Iraq. Leading up to the war, and during the fighting, CNN and other American media treated the Bush regime with kid gloves. We saw little of the civilian casualties that filled news screens around the world. Yet after the war the American media appear to be far more critical of the Bush plans. Almost every day we hear about suicide bomb attacks, and until lately we have had little exposure to rebuilding progress in Iraq.


What happened? Has the media changed its collective mind about our foreign policy? Maybe, but a simpler explanation operates. In each case the media chose the presentation that made for the best story. "Heroic American fighters" was the best and most marketable story before and during the major fighting. "Suicide bomber attacks" has proven to be a forceful story in the last few months. "American soldiers rebuilding schools" doesn't draw as big a crowd. In fact recently the pro-war side has done better by pushing "outrage that war critics neglect progress in Iraq" as a slant.


The media appear obsessed with personal scandals, such as the victims of toxic waste dumps, or women whose breast implants have poisoned their bodies. It is no accident that Erin Brockovich was a hit movie. The media thus appear to be hard on corporations, sympathetic to government regulation, and, as a result, "left-wing." But again, they are looking for a good and marketable story, and yes this includes Monica Lewinsky. Journalists are seeking to advance their careers more than a political agenda.


For purposes of contrast, look at crime. Crime, and crime victims, make among the most compelling stories. Remember the obsession with the DC area sniper case? Not surprisingly, people who watch TV receive the impression that crime is very high, if only because they see so much crime on TV. The contrasting reality is that most people in America lead very safe lives. Nonetheless the "left-wing" media appear to take a "right-wing" stance when it comes to warning us about crime, again in search of a better story.


Media favor coverage that can be packaged. The OJ trial, for instance, had dramatic developments with some frequency, regular characters, and a fairly simple plot line. It resembled a daily soap opera, and not surprisingly it was immensely popular on TV. For similar reasons, serial killers will receive attention disproportionate to their number of victims.


Some economic points have an especially hard time getting a fair shake from the media. It is easy to show how a government program put Joe Smith back to work. Arguably the expenditure was a waste, once we consider the "hidden costs of opportunities foregone," but this abstract concept does not make for an easy visual, much less a good interview. In similar fashion, the media do little to show the benefits of free trade.


In sum, media bias may not be as harmful as many people think. It is perhaps sad that we do not look much to the news for objective information, but this same fact limits the damage that slanted coverage can cause. Keep in mind that many definitions of media bias mean that the media think one way, and the citizenry thinks another way. So clearly the media have not succeeded in forcing us all into the same mold.


We should resist the temptation to think that the TV screen, or the newspaper Op-Ed page, or the blogosphere for that matter, is the critical arena deciding the fate of the world. In reality, these media are a sideshow to the more general human preoccupation with stories. We use TV and other media to suit our personal purposes, not vice versa. No, the media are not fair, but they are unfair in ways different than you might imagine. They are unfair because you, collectively, as viewers, want them to be unfair.


Tyler Cowen is Professor of Economics at George Mason University, he writes for and on a regular basis. He last wrote for TCS about the game theory of nuclear proliferation.

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