News Columns & Blogs

On media bias: I know you are, but what am I?

I've been scribbling my random thoughts about journalism on this blog for the better part of four years, and I would estimate nearly a quarter of my posts have dealt head-on or tangentially with the concept of "bias." I'm on record acknowledging media biases - some of which are actually quite useful to readers - including a liberal political bias, which is neither useful nor well understood.

But I'm starting to believe that all of these missives about bias are, ironically, themselves a reflection of a bias I've not dwelled upon before: That the perception of media bias is soley the fault of the media. To that point, a new study suggests the content we host but do not write plays a signficant role readers' perception of us.

... I'm looking at you, story commenters.

An article about the study published at wonders: Research suggests that such forums can serve as a proxy for public opinion; could they also influence how readers perceive journalistic content?

It continued:

A popular aspect of online journalism is the ability of users to quickly comment on news stories and posts. Depending on a site's degree of moderation, such content can be an insightful exchange of opinions - or highly partisan rants, often about supposed media bias. ... A 2012 study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, "That's Not the Way It Is: How User-Generated Comments on the News Affect Perceived Media Bias," investigated the extent to which user-generated comments on Internet news articles shaped readers perceptions. ... Key study findings include: Given the way certain kinds of readers process news information, some cannot properly distinguish where information came from; the data suggest that "people might misattribute the opinions expressed in others' comments to the news article."

The study notes that comments are sometimes quite effective in shaping the opinions of others. And those whose hearts or minds are changed usually perceived their new beliefs to more closely aligned with public sentiment about the issue at hand. But when readers hold steadfast in their viewpoint, their opinion of the reporting medium often hinges on whether it seems to attract a lot of other readers who agree with them. If it does, the medium typically is regarded favorably; if it does not, the reader tends to believe their viewpoint is "losing ground" in the medium and that the medium is biased.

On a related topic, a study by Seoul National University researchers found that others' comments significantly affected participants' personal opinion, but only for those less prone to engage in analytical thinking.

I suppose that means if you're stubborn and irrational, you think the media are really biased or really wonderful.

I started poking around in the Internet to read more on different sorts of biases. My guess is that on any given day, you can find in story comments on this very website that is evidence of "availability cascade," the "bandwagon effect," "confirmation bias" and the "backfire effect."

Don't feel too bad, though. I looked through a list of biases on Wikipedia and counted more than 150 - that number might be a bit off if I also suffer an innumeracy bias - and figured I probably suffered a good quarter of them.

That's saying something because I'm a lot more perceptive than most people, so I'm sure you folks suffer mightily.

I'm just relieved to know that when us journalist types get accused of being biased, there's a good chance it's as much you as it is me.