Monday, July 24, 2006

Is media liberal/conservative biased? Depends on the view of the observers

A research study reported twenty years ago says that the person observing a news report will define it as biased against his/her own views. That is, if you are conservative it looks like it is biased liberally, and if you are liberal it looks like it is biased conservatively. See the article at the Washington Post.
"The endlessly recursive conflict in the Middle East provides any number of instructive morals about human nature, but it also offers a psychological window into the world of partisan behavior. Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon sparked some of the earliest experiments into why people reach dramatically different conclusions about the same events.

The results say a lot about partisan behavior in general -- why Republicans and Democrats love to hate each other, for example, or why Coke and Pepsi fans clash. Sadly, the results also say a lot about the newest conflicts between Israel and its enemies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and why news organizations are being besieged with angry complaints from both sides.

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.

Were pro-Israeli and pro-Arab viewers who were especially knowledgeable about the conflict immune from such distortions? Amazingly, it turned out to be exactly the opposite, Stanford psychologist Lee D. Ross said. The best-informed partisans were the most likely to see bias against their side.

Ross thinks this is because partisans often feel the news lacks context. Instead of just showing a missile killing civilians, in other words, partisans on both sides want the news to explain the history of events that prompted -- and could have justified -- the missile. The more knowledgeable people are, the more context they find missing.

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."

"If I think the world is black, and you think the world is white, and someone comes along and says it is gray, we will both think that person is biased," Ross said.

The experiment, of course, did not address whether news reports were in fact biased -- who would decide? -- or how the media ought to cover conflicts. Partisans argue that assigning equal weight to both sides is wrong when one side (theirs) is right. In any event, psychologists such as Ross are less interested in rating the news or in which side is right than in the curiosities of human perception: Why are partisans invariably blind to how news coverage might help their side?
This final line is really interesting. Are we always looking for enemies?

If you accept evolution as an explanation, then someone always looking for enemies to attack them seems to me to be more likely to survive without the nasty surprise of some friend out to kill you. If you don't accept evolution as an explanation, then I have no idea how you would explain this result. But whatever your explanation, it is statistically true over a large number of experiments. Using evolution as an explanation it makes perfect sense to me. We are geared to expect to be attacked because those of our ancestors who had that bias survived more often than those who did not have that bias.

Can anyone offer some other explanation for hat result of the experiment?

No comments: