May 30, 2004

Media bias and feedback systems

Steven Den Beste has an excellent post on media bias. Among many other things he says:

But that [bias] also will happen in other kinds of organizations. In academia in the most leftist departments it's deliberate activism, but in news organizations it tends to be more indirect. Promotion is more based on merit, but senior people will evaluate the writing and performance of juniors partly on the basis of ideology, even if unconsciously: what they write will be seen as "more accurate", "making more sense" if the junior person's politics and world view are similar to the senior. Thus there will also be a tendency within news organizations for ideologies to reinforce, and for objectivity to transform into bias. (And note that when people in those organizations deny bias and claim that they are objective, they're not lying even though they may be wrong. They truly think they are objective; most of them see themselves as "moderate" and "centrist" even when they are well away from the broader consensus of the population.)

Steven is a systems engineer, so he probably recognizes this as a system with positive feedback. In systems engineering positive feedback is a bad thing. It means that random deviations – in this case, ways of understanding the news not derived from reality, but from the unconscious ideology or worldview of the reporter – are fed back into the system and amplified. This self-reinforcement (positive feedback) will result in the whole system spinning out of control – in this case, not reporting the truth.

One engineering response would be to look for some kind of flywheel (the flywheel is a device for regulating the inherent positive feedback in steam engines – it provides the negative feedback which the system otherwise lacks). Another would be to look for ways to redesign the system so that it doesn’t have positive feedback to begin with.

I can’t think of realistic ways to implement either of these solutions in the media. Steven offers the following, simultaneously rejecting it:

Some will say that the general tendency of individual news organizations to move from objectivity to bias can be handled through competition between independent news organizations, but there's a problem with that. Competition would reward reportage of what is popular, not reportage of what is true. Do we want the media to tell us what we want to hear, or what we need to hear?

The initial state of having several news sources which were biased in several ways would permit individual citizens to look at them all and try to get an idea of the reality behind those reports (similar to how juries compare the cases made by opposing attorneys).

But that kind of competitive system is unstable and tends to shakeout and concentration. If one network gets good ratings in part because of a particular bias, other news organizations will eventually move to similar positions. There may not be business shakeout but there will be ideological shakeout.

If viewers prefer one TV network over another in part based in differences in bias between them, and reward one with better ratings, then this substitutes the consensus bias in the electorate for the internal bias of the news organizations. That may be a change, but it isn't clear that it's an improvement.

I think that this analysis was correct in the pre-internet age, when barriers to entry into the media market were very high. But if barriers to entry are sufficiently low, the “ideological shakeout” will not occur. If there is any market at all for a particular point of view, then it will be expressed. (In the business world this is called a niche market. A lot of money can be made by selling to niche markets, maybe not as much as selling to broad markets, but one of the wonderful things about the free enterprise system, is that if there’s money to be made by offering a particular product, someone will do it, no matter how small the profits are in absolute terms.) Over time, a minority point of view may even become popular. I understand that the popularity of a point of view does not necessarily depend on its merits. But neither to I think that, over time, it is completely divorced from its merits. In any case, this is our only hope.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at May 30, 2004 09:46 AM
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