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WaPo: Media Bias Depends on Which Side You’re On

I’m late getting to this article in the Washington Post about media bias, but I just wanted to highlight a few quick points before it slipped off the radar entirely. Here’s the summary:

Partisans, it turns out, don’t just arrive at different conclusions; they see entirely different worlds . In one especially telling experiment, researchers showed 144 observers six television news segments about Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon.
Pro-Arab viewers heard 42 references that painted Israel in a positive light and 26 references that painted Israel unfavorably.
Pro-Israeli viewers, who watched the very same clips, spotted 16 references that painted Israel positively and 57 references that painted Israel negatively.
Both groups were certain they were right and that the other side didn’t know what it was talking about.
The tendency to see bias in the news — now the raison d’etre of much of the blogosphere — is such a reliable indicator of partisan thinking that researchers coined a term, “hostile media effect,” to describe the sincere belief among partisans that news reports are painting them in the worst possible light.

According to the article, this happens because “partisans” (like those “pro-Arab” and “pro-Israeli” viewers) know so much about their subjects, they quickly pick up on any missing context that they feel might help the average reader see the issue from their point of view. That seems plausible enough. But here’s the paragraph that really captured my interest:

Even more curious, the hostile media effect seems to apply only to news sources that strive for balance. News reports from obviously biased sources usually draw fewer charges of bias. Partisans, it turns out, find it easier to countenance obvious propaganda than news accounts that explore both sides.

I think there’s a big difference between “propaganda” and opinion journalism (the latter, in order to maintain credibility, must be as accurate and intellectually honest as “straight reporting”). But aside from that disagreement over word usage, I think this insight points to a way out of the bias wars — which recently have seen an rapid escalation as my friends on the left have ramped up their criticism of the media. Naturally, people don’t lob charges of bias against news organizations that are transparent about their agendas. It’s only the hidden bias that gets people angry. And bias is inevitable. As the author of this article wrote in a live online Q&A yesterday:

I think being aware [of our biases] helps, but my guess is these biases cannot be eliminated completely. In fact, I think we would do harm by eliminating them completely. Normal functioning involves emotions and feelings and pre-conceptions. To rip all that out may leave us bias free, but it may also leave us without some of the most precious things about being human.

This answer was in response to a question about bias in reading the news, but it could also apply to bias in writing it. The way we see the world helps us make judgments and draw conclusions and sometimes to get the story right. If journalists weren’t always trying to hide behind the facade of objectivity — if we knew “where they were coming from” — we would know to expect a little “missing context” in the average reporter’s story. We could then find that context by getting the story from a reporter with a different point of view. We could finally get “both sides” as told by people who are passionate and knowledgeable about the subjects they are covering. Right now, the mainstream media gathers news; the blogosphere provides the context. But the two are integrating at an incredible rate of speed, and one of the most interesting questions to arise out of that integration is whether affected neutrality will be rendered obsolete.

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