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Structural Media Bias

In late December of 2007, The New York Times published an editorial about the stances various Presidential candidates had taken on immigration issues.  What struck me about it was not their critique of the candidates’ positions but the fact that the structure of the editorial — like the structure of many news stories I had been reading at the time and have read since — created a perceptual and subjective bias even if, by an “objective” accounting, one would have to conclude that it was both “fair” and “balanced” in its presentation.  It seemed to me that, in the argument over whether or not the media was or was not “biased” in the way it reported the news,  such structural elements were not being taken into account.

I wrote this letter to the public editor, not for publication but to initiate a conversation within the editorial staff.  Since I received no reply, and since there seems to have been no appreciable change in the way things are reported, I conclude it had no impact.

30 December 2007

Ref: NYT editorial, Immigration and the Candidates (30 December 2007):

I know this is an editorial, not news, and that it, therefore, should be given much more leeway in any criticism of its “objectivity”. But the complaint I have has both to do with the way things are presented as “facts” within the editorial format and with a wider issue of story structure that has been of concern to me for some time.

In the referenced editorial, they begin by declaring (their opinion) that the Republicans’ positions on immigration are awful and that the Democrats’ positions are somewhat (but not much) better. They then give us background to support their contention in multiple sections, Republicans first followed by Democrats. Fair enough.

The first section on the Republicans begins after a break signifier at paragraph 5. In that paragraph they declare that the debate among Republican candidates on immigration is “not much of a debate” and that the candidates speak with “essentially one voice”. This, although lacking specificity, is structured as a statement of fact rather than opinion — it is a reportorial summary of the current state of affairs.

The second section on Republicans, in which they begin to go into detail, begins in paragraph 9 following another break signifier. In that paragraph they declare, “Instead of answering these questions, the Republican candidates have spent their time blasting one another as coddlers of illegal immigrants and supporters of ‘amnesty.'” Again, a reportorial summary of fact encompassing all the candidates and, by implication, the “official” position of the Republican Party that they purport to represent.

Thereafter follows 5 more paragraphs of criticism of various specific candidate positions.

Finally, we get to paragraph 15 — in which we discover that, in fact, John McCain hasn’t been joining in this “one voice”, hasn’t been in step with all the others. That he has, rather, been trying to broaden the debate; that his position is completely different than everything that has been described heretofore.

In other words, we discover that the snide reportorial summaries of the “facts” about “all” the Republican candidates were inaccurate.  We find that the editorialists have contradicted themselves!

Unfortunately, we had to wade through 14 paragraphs of criticism of “all” the Republican candidates — and presumably, therefore, of the official “Republican” position on immigration — before finding that out.

Regardless of your personal position on how to deal with immigration or on the particular candidacies or on the political parties, does this seem to you as dishonest as it does to me?

This is an illustration of a larger structural issue that has concerned me for some time. Generally I find it in news stories, rather than editorials, mostly because editorials tend to be shorter.

I describe the problem thus:

  • A story is structured in its overall tone to convey a particular impression and narrative. One side of the story is featured in the lead paragraphs; and the cues from the lead paragraphs are used by the headline writers to fit the headline to that narrative.
  • Then, somewhere down at the bottom of the story, the reporter brings in the other side — the people who contest the way it has so far been portrayed — and gives it “equal”, or at least reasonable, time. Hence by most “accounting” methods the story is “balanced”. The newspaper has maintained a facade of “objectivity”.

Except that, in the real world, tucking opposing views into the last paragraphs of a long story does not constitute either equal time or balance. It may be that a few news junkies have the time and luxury to read every story from beginning to end, but most people don’t. Most people read a newspaper more haphazardly:

  1. Skim the headlines to find stories of particular interest
  2. Having chosen stories to read, read the first paragraph or two to get the gist of the story
  3. If the first paragraph or two appear to have
    1. covered the main points
    2. been consistent with the headline
    3. reinforced our pre-conceived idea of how such a story would go, then…
  4. Skip on to the next story

That may not be the way we should read the news but, given the hectic pace of 21st century life, it is all too often the way we do read it.

From that description, the problem becomes obvious. Most people will never get to the last paragraphs of a long story to see the “balance”.  And hence, for them, such “balance” may just as well have been omitted.

I believe this is a source of much of the contention about whether particular press vehicles have “liberal” or “conservative” bias. If you analyze the full content of what appears in print, you will get a different answer to that question than if you could, somehow, assess instead the impression left with the majority of readers.

And in, a practical sense — in any sense that accounts for the effect of journalism rather than merely the theory of journalism — it is the impression left with the readers that counts.

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