Laying a Brick: what is bias?

(Introducing the category: Laying a Brick. Since bias is a central theme of many of my posts, I thought I should try to layout some background and assumptions I am using, and to create a sounding board for further discussions. These types of posts I consider foundational because they inform the use of the term bias in other posts. and yes, I’m not unfamiliar with the scatological characterization of the bloggosphere.)

This one is a toughie. It’s basically defined as an outlook or perspective that is usually unfair or unreasonable toward opposing perspectives. We all agree that everyone is entitled to their own perspective, but how do we judge whether or not something is unfair? Especially when the judgers may use their own bias to make that decision?

The definition is also open to using the word “bias” without the implication of suppressing alternative perspectives. In that case, it just means preference or holding some value. Therefore, when the word bias is used, there’s the potential for some ambiguity. This is one reason why we must make a distinction between negative bias and neutral bias, personal bias and media bias. Personal bias can be benign or “unfair” depending on the use and context of the word, but when you have media bias, the underlying assumption (which is not always correct) is that it’s the “unfair” kind.

It is arguable that it is impossible to completely remove bias from the news, and therefore the best we can hope for is a diverse market that caters to all sides. (whoa! More on this later.) But does that exonerate the worse case offenders from not even attempting to be impartial? Does the fact that bias is nearly impossible to remove mean that we must adjust our expectations for journalistic ethics? Or can a code of ethics function as a litmus test for revealing unacceptable uses of bias?

Overtly, we agree that negative bias is bad. When a news outlet admits bias, it takes a hit. We have an interesting situation where journalists and news organizations tacitly admit bias, and yet call out other journalists and news organizations for their bias. It appears hypocritical, but maybe this is just part of the theater of opposing biases. Each side does not appear unfairly biased to itself, but each does appear unfairly biased towards one another.

This brings us to another dimension of the bias conundrum, the “hostile media effect.” This is when someone with a strong bias automatically “perceives media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality.”

Even though we think of media bias as wrong, the market appears to the support news organizations despite their perceived biases, or perhaps even because of them. Studies show (see below) show that there is a strong influence of bias in the news market due to the demand of the news buying market. If we suppose that the market is actually open and free, then what does the current state of bias in mainstream news outlets say about the bias of the body politic? And, even more importantly, what does this say about the people?

Conclusions:

The question is not whether there is bias; everyone has bias. The question is whether that bias is unfair or unreasonable in its treatment of alternative perspectives. Unfortunately, it is probably impossible to always objectively determine whether or not a bias is unfair towards others. And chances are, even in the best situations, at least one person may still be entitled to call foul simply. Is it possible to offer an opinion on politics and current events that is universally unbiased? maybe, but I don’t see how. Perceptions of unfair bias are predicated upon the viewer’s bias, the ability to step outside of one’s bias and the individual’s ability to tolerate alternative perspectives.

Finally, I’m left wondering… can the journalistic code of ethics (or some type of methodology) be used with reasonable accuracy to call out bias? Is it something that can only be used with authority by those outside the bias of mainstream society? Finally what can be said about the bias against science? Regardless of the bias that may or may not have prompted it, shouldn’t cases of distortion, misinterpretation or otherwise inappropriate use of science and scientific data be called out and corrected?

References

(In the effort to promote transparency, enlightenment and critical thinking, I feel it is important to document the information I am using.)

The Market for News” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer published in the peer reviewed journal American Economic Review is  a study which explores the relationship between demand in the news market and it’s influence on biased news. Although not definitive proof, the study provides strong evidence that the bias present in news media is a product of maximizing profit in the market.   http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/shleifer/files/market_aea.pdf

Another exploration of media bias and supply demand side economics is provided in “Media Bias and Reputation.” [Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro; Journal of Political Economy, 2006, 114(2), pp. 280 – 316. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/499414] Here the authors find that bias occurs as a result of news organizations effort to build a reputation of accuracy with their potential market. Gentzkow has continued this exploration in several subsequent papers. See here: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/busecon/busfac/Gentzkow.html

Apart from this is I used wikipedia and various online dictionaries. Wikipedia is usually a good starting point for getting some background on the issue: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_bias

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2 thoughts on “Laying a Brick: what is bias?

  1. And are you saying that everyone should strive to be “unbiased”? I would hate a world where no one had opinions because they were afraid they would appear biased.The world would stagnate! I feel that there is nothing wrong with being biased if you have thought things through and have decided that what you are biased about is a strong belief. Then, don’t shove it down anyone’s else’s throat.

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