Media and the Conventional Wisdom

I recently threw open to the hive mind the question of why the U.S. lacks proudly partisan national media outlets such as exist in the U.K. Of the many thoughtful responses, the one below has stayed with me. I am posting it here because RBCers may not have seen it (it was on our sister site, Washington Monthly).

The comment is by SteveT, a former journalist. You can read the whole thing here, but let me give you the nub:

The thing most journalist won’t admit to is having a strong bias. But it isn’t toward a liberal viewpoint (no matter what Republicans say). Nor is it toward a conservative viewpoint.

Journalists are defenders of the status quo and of “conventional wisdom” , which is ironic because journalists create “conventional wisdom” in their attempts to tie stories together under a common theme.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “Media and the Conventional Wisdom”

  1. Steve T is right, and wrong. Right, that the media mostly defend the “conventional wisdom”. Wrong, in that because most journalists ARE liberals, they are biased towards a liberal conception of what the “conventional wisdom” is. Lacking in self awareness, and living in something of an echo chamber because they associate mostly with people who agree with themselves, they confuse their own views for “what everybody believes”.

    1. I think, Brett, you’re confusing “liberal” and “factual.” It’s true that journalists and liberals both favor scientific explanations, for instance, but that’s not properly thought of as bias.

      Bias is most easily diagnosable when it results in incorrect reporting of facts. So, for example, news outlets suddenly refused to talk about torture when the American government OK’d the practice. Often, political stories give equal weight to “both sides” of the evolution “controversy.” And of course there’s the case of WMD, or Katrina looting or what have you – cases where the facts didn’t back up the reports.

      Most recently, we’ve got the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story, which has resulted in some pretty awful journalism.

      I think it all bears out Steve T’s thesis pretty well.

      1. Bias is most easily diagnosable when it results in incorrect reporting of facts.

        Right: and the media is notable for getting facts wrong, in the places where they don’t know them, and at least some of those places are conservative (guns and religion are notable). Sample questions, that I’ve seen the media get wrong over and over:

        Did the Assault Weapons Ban limit the sales of automatic weapons? (No–they have been effectively illegal since the 1930’s.)
        Did the Assault Weapons Ban affect the availability of high-capacity weapons? (Not really–new imports and manufactures were prohibited, but there were enough in circulation that geting one legally was as easy as buying a 2-year-old Honda Civic.)
        What’s the most deadly common firearm? (A shotgun; handguns are the least deadly.)

      2. “It’s true that journalists and liberals both favor scientific explanations, for instance, but that’s not properly thought of as bias.”

        It’s not actually true, depends on the subject, such as nuclear energy or genetic engineering, where liberals are actually less likely than conservatives to hold views consistent with scientific findings.

        1. Examples please, of how ALL liberals hold non-scientific views on these subjects.

          I know of many liberals who support nuclear energy and genetic research, including myself. An argument doesn’t count if you grab a few voices and tar the entire left/progressive movement with them–once again, you’re committing the logical fallacy of erecting strawmen.

          1. Examples, please, of how ALL conservatives hold non-scientific views on other subjects.

            Is the phrase, “less likely” greek to you? I’ve no interest in your effort to replace what I said with a strawman.

          2. And now you’re guilty of another logical fallacy: tu quoque. “Avoiding having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser – answering criticism with criticism.”

            Wow, you’re going through the list of logical fallacies today.

          3. Seriously, Matt, is it your assertion that all conservatives are, for instance, creationists? If not, I am certainly as entitled to utilize statistical generalizations as you are. Or perhaps more the the point, as politicalfootball is, since I was responding to him.

            I explicitly made a statistical generalization, (“less likely”) and you put that “all” in my mouth, to turn what I wrote into a strawman you could accuse me of. That’s scarcely cricket, and I’m within my rights to call you on it.

          4. And may I say a word or two about “du toque”? As the term is misused so frequently here…

            The nature of the “du toque” falacy is this: If you accuse me of some wrong, and I state that you have committed it, it would be a falacy to think that I have refuted your accusation, because we can both be guilty of that wrong.

            For example, were I put on trial for assault, it would be no defense at all for me to point out that my supposed victim had at some time committed assault.

            However, if we are engaging in a zero sum choice between two alternatives, and you advance as a reason why my prefered candidate should not be chosen that they have committed some wrong, it is entirely relevant to point out that your chosen candidate is also guilty of that same wrong. It is not a denial of guilt, but denial of a contrast.

            And no du toque at all.

            And so, when people here make a great show of complaining of the cognitive deficits typical of conservatives, (And they are many!) I will continue to point out that liberals have their own characteristic cognitive deficits, because we are engaged in a comparison, not a mere evaluation of one entity.

            And du toque does not actually enter into it.

          5. And yet so often your only argument in these forums, when asked to provide evidence for a far-fetched assertion you’ve made, is to say “but liberals do it too!”

            Your argument is flawed in another way, however. You use a non-equivalent example to argue that “liberals are anti-science too!” Let me explain: The platform of the GOP questions the basic science behind evolution and climate change–not the effects of these things, but the validity of the basic, testable, and provable science. These are large fields with many branches off of them and thousands of peer-reviewed, independently confirmed experiments supporting their hypotheses. And yet the GOP, for political reasons and without testable evidence, chooses to say the basic science is wrong.

            That’s very different from a few liberals not supporting a niche part of research or science. Additionally, the liberals who do oppose nuclear energy or genetic engineering are not typically questioning the basic science behind these fields, but the ethics involved in pursuing them. Of course we can create nuclear energy–it’s been proven. But the environmental effects of creating and using that same energy are open to ethical debate.

            Give me examples of the Democratic or progressive platform (not a few lone individuals) disagreeing with basic and provable science, and I might agree with you.

          6. Ok, first off, I think you’re being too facile in your claim that liberal opposition to nuclear energy or genetic engineering is based on morality, not disagreement with the science. It’s based on applying morality to a disagreement with what the science says about the relative safety of the applications.

            But you want an example of liberals opposing a whole field of research? Fine. Go look at how they reacted when The Bell Curve came out.

  2. On a local level reporters seem to know what story they will write and go looking for facts that will support that story. Every news story that I have had personal knowledge of has been a fantasy and I’ve read statements of others that voice the same observation.
    It would not be surprising if SteveT’s point about “conventional wisdom” isn’t that same habit writ large. And if “everybody’s” saying the same stuff it makes it so much easier to follow the pack.

  3. Steve T has a good list of examples, and I’d add the idea that Republicans are fiscally responsible. It’s something for which there’s zero evidence, but nonetheless keeps being reported.

    1. Thank you for saying this. It needs to be repeated, loudly and publicly, ad nauseum.

      Bush was one of the most prolifically spendy presidents in American history. And yet Democratic presidents who were able to balance the budget and level deficits (Clinton) and pull us out of an economic morass (Obama) are derided as not fiscally reasonable. Of all the many fictions and lies spewing from the GOP and the Right, this one seems to have the most severe consequences.

  4. I’ve worked as a journalist in both the the US and the UK (but for an American publication.) One important difference, at least historically, is the business model for journalism in each country. It comes down to: who is the paying customer? European newspapers and magazines, as I understand it, derive a higher a portion of their revenue from circulation rather than advertising. I’d guess this is one reason UK papers are so much more lively and (in the tabs) scandal obsessed–they really have to jump off the newsstand. (It’s also why the FT is pink, at least according to the FT reporter who explained this to me at the pub.) Readers generally like partisanship and opinion, and will pay for it. The pose of fairness and balance, on the other hand, is relatively more attractive to advertisers, who want to connect with as broad an audience as possible.

    This would go a way toward explaining the BBC. Whatever it’s slant or cultural blindspots, it’s stated standards are much more similar to those of an American news organization like the New York Times. The BBC isn’t just accountable to its viewers, but to its funders, the television license payers.

    Of course, this distinction is breaking down. While on the one hand online media is very advertising driven, online advertisers aren’t usually looking for a broad audience.

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