Personal Biases in News Consumption

Regardless of any biases, the national media outlets in the US do not generally misstate facts. If the facts are demonstrably incorrect, a correction usually follows. European papers tend to follow this example.

The Daily Mirror made a terrible mistake when it published what turned out to be faked photographs purporting to show abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. Regardless of how anxious the Daily Mirror is to find evidence to discredit Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to join a Coalition in Iraq, the Mirror editors were probably too credulous in believing what they now claim was a “calculated and malicious hoax.” Perhaps the Mirror made its anti-government bias a little too conspicuous when it suggested that the government was deliberately calling into question the legitimacy of the photographs because it “likes to produce a scapegoat to distract attention when it is in a crisis.”

In the end the Mirror did the right thing: it apologized for publishing the photographs and dismissed Piers Morgan, the editor responsible. The really unique situation is that Morgan remained stubbornly unrepentant and disturbingly unconcerned about the veracity of the photographs. He dismissed the fact that the photographs were faked by noting that they nonetheless “accurately illustrated the reality about the appalling conduct of some British troops.” The journalistic ethos, at least in the United States, fortunately still has residual respect for facts.

Media biases are typically not evident in deliberately false statements. Rather, it creeps in indirectly and mostly unintentionally via a bias by agenda. Editors have a finite amount of space and resources to devote to coverage. They, therefore, have to make judgments about what stories are more important, more deserving, or just plain more interesting. It is in deciding between priorities in coverage that even editors and journalists who genuinely seek to be fair can unconsciously allow their own perspectives to color reporting.

This difference in agenda was clearer than usual in the coverage this week of the discovery of an unmarked Iraqi artillery shell containing deadly sarin nerve gas. On the day that the information was released, there was some coverage of the finding, but certainly not the saturation coverage granted the prisoner abuse scandal. The next day, Fox News had found military sources confirming that the tests for sarin gas in the field had been confirmed by further tests. The story was a headline all day at Fox News. CNN did not mention this on its home page and neither did the Washington Post. The NY Times had a small link at the bottom of its page to the story. Apparently the fact that New York was still in the running for the 2012 Olympics and that the actor Tony Randall died were all, in the collective judgments of the NY Times, CNN, and the Washington Post, significantly more important than the first confirmation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after more than a year. The only way to guard against such differences in agenda is to maintain a truly diverse editorial staff, real intellectual and political diversity.

The bias of agenda based on different editorial perspectives is a well-documented and discussed phenomenon. However, what is less well understood is the bias in news consumption. We all have the natural proclivity to focus on stories that confirm our world view. Hence, those against the Iraq War follow in detail the prisoner abuse scandal, perhaps secretly hoping that the abuse was not isolated and that high officials in the Bush Administration are implicated. While responsible people will not make such an accusation without sufficient evidence, they will still eagerly consume stories like the ones in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh that suggest some culpability on the part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in prisoner abuse.

Some follow such stories hoping to be politically vindicated. Yet, it would seem that the proper perspective for an American would be to hope that the abuse scandal is isolated, both to redeem American values and make life a little safer for innocent American soldiers. However embarrassing it might be to concede it publicly, Bush opponents are not above a little schadenfreude at the prisoner abuse scandal, regardless of the cost to American prestige and risk to American lives. Such people should ask themselves whether they will be disappointed or excited to find out that prisoner abuse is pervasive. I know of no way to demonstrate this, but am willing to assert than many who are carefully scouring the news for information that Rumsfeld is somehow connect to prisoner abuse are not devoting the same study to scandal in the United Nation’s Oil-for-Food program, or evidence of operational links between Al Qaeda, or the discovery of nuclear material in Jordan.

Similarly those who would prefer to see at least one of the reasons for the war more fully vindicated are more likely to follow with rapt attention stories lending credence to the WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Though the prudent would caution against grasping too tightly at the latest discovery of sarin gas artillery shell, would it not really be a cause of celebration to learn with certainty Hussein disposed of his WMD stockpiles shortly before the war? Would it not be better to be assured that the WMD could not fall into the hands of terrorists — terrorists with no scruples against use of such weapons against civilian populations? Some want to believe that their pre-war assessments of WMD, yet evidence supporting such a conclusion might prove to be more destabilizing. Do we really want a world where some WMD have been taken to unknown haunts? Some should ask themselves if they would be disappointed to find out that all WMD stockpiles were destroyed before the war so that the threat of war was sufficient to disarm Saddam (even if we didn’t know at the time). Of course, for those who accepted pre-war WMD assessments, there is sill a graceful way out: These WMD stockpiles could be found and disposed of now.

We are all subject to ugly, quiet feelings. We would rather nestle in the comfort of feeling right, even it that means others would be less well off. From a political perspective, the prospects of the party out of power vary inversely with the prospects of the country as a whole. In this case, the more destabilized Iraq becomes and the slower the economy grows, the better off Democrats are. It is an unfortunate position to be in, but there is no escaping the logic of the situation. There are times when people find themselves grasping their convictions firmly, while at the same time having to hope that they are wrong.

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