I’ve run a bunch of programs for small groups of journalists where we talk about economics or data and empirical work so I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time among journalists in casual situations. One thing journalists hate is being told that they’re biased. It infuriates them. It is a semi-reasonable reaction. Journalists respond by explaining that they are professionals. Of course, they admit, they have personal views about politics and ideology. But they would never let their views contaminate their reporting. That’s what being a professional is all about.
It’s a semi-reasonable reaction because most journalists that I’ve known ARE professionals. They do their job very well and objectivity is their credo. It is a huge part of the culture of journalism.
It’s a semi-unreasonable reaction because we’re all human, and bias–as I’ve learned in recent years the more I’ve thought about it–is often a subtle phenomenon. I’ve become extremely interested in confirmation bias, I’ve sensitized myself to my own biases, and that makes it easier to see how it works in others.
Megan Mcardle (HT: Arnold Kling) really gets at the root of the problem and the subtlety of bias in this post. Most of the time, the media isn’t sitting around conspiring among themselves. But many journalists do have biases and bias works in subtle ways affecting what journalists question and won’t they don’t question. The only point she misses is the role that bias plays in placing articles. You want to make the editor happy. You don’t sit around thinking what can I do to make the editor happy. That would be unprofessional and it would bother most journalists to think they’ve slanted a piece in ways that confirm the editor’s biases. But those incentives are at work even when most people aren’t thinking about them. Read all of Megan’s piece. I’m looking forward to checking out Tim Groseclose’s book that she mentions.
Read Megan’s post. It’s superb. It reminds me that we think we know is always as problematic as what we think we don’t know.