Bias Is Not a Bug…

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…it's a feature of news in a competitive marketplace, argues former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel in a great new New York Times col.

If bias is a product flaw, why does it not behave like auto repair rates, declining under competitive pressure?

In a recent paper, "The Market for News," two Harvard economists look at that question. "There's plenty of competition" among news sources, Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the authors, said in an interview. But "the more competition there has been in the last 20 years, the more discussion there has been of bias."

The reason, he and his colleague, Andrei Shleifer, argue, is that consumers care about more than accuracy. "We assume that readers prefer to hear or read news that are more consistent with their beliefs," they write. Bias is not a bug but a feature.

Whole thing here (reg. req.)

VP's blog here.

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  1. See, all liberals have to say when someone gripes about bias in the NYT or wherever is, “well, obviously the public likes to read news from a blinkered point of view.” 😉

  2. I guess maybe it’s a feature if you look at news as a product, re-enginered to meet the consumers desires. Which is fine for the fake tabloid news shows, but real news is information about events that occured.
    If what they’re trying to provide is a watered down distortion of reality that fits people’s delusions about how the world works, maybe they need to find a new word to descibe what they’re providing.

  3. If what they’re trying to provide is a watered down distortion of reality that fits people’s delusions about how the world works, maybe they need to find a new word to descibe what they’re providing.

    Leaving aside that any depiction of a real life event in text or video will be a “watered down distortion”, are you talking about the NYT, here?

  4. Wasn’t targeting anyone in particular. It was more the sickening thought that people in media are intentionally going to slant in one way or another to appeal to readers.
    To think that any observer of an event won’t be viewing that event through the subconscious filters built through the experiences of their life is foolish, but that’s completely different than pandering to an audience.

  5. The product of news media is not news. The product is you. They sell you to advertisers.

    Now that that’s clear, how do they attract and hold a daily audience? Soap opera news, which comes out as bias, but in truth is just news packaged in ways that women can relate to it. They’re attracted by complexity, irresolution and frustration.

    In effect, the 40% of women who are like that select the news for everybody.

    The media would like a larger audience, but except for one-off stories there’s no larger demographic to be had. Regular people won’t tune in or read about city council meetings.

    Soap opera happens every day, and that audience returns every day. So that’s what you see and hear.

    Except for the blogosphere, which survives on potshots at this arrangement.

  6. My favorite news sources are Reason, Salon, the Economist, and the Daily Show. The first 3 sources have very obvious slants, and the Daily Show is accused of having a slant, even if I think the alleged slant is exaggerated.

  7. This is probably true. When you consider the fact that about 90% of the MSM are far to the left of most of America, it would explain why Fox News makes so much money. The fact that the rest of the media hasn’t followed and tried harder to cater to their audiences says that people are not always rational and markets are not always perfect.

  8. Well, another way to look at it is that you know the reporter is viewing something through a perceptual lens similar to your own – or a lens that’s different in a way you understand.

    This sort of thing requires more openness than the press likes to practice, though. When a journalist tells you that he’d be sacrificing his credibility to publically acknowledge his political views, what he means is that he’d be destroying the illusion that he’s a Dispassionate Journalist(tm)…

  9. I think the Daily Show just has an anti-stupidity slant. It just so happens that most of the stupidity right now flows like water over Niagara Falls from the Republicans.

  10. Thoreau,

    I got an offer for the Economist in the mail. But if the main point of the publication is economicsZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ….Oh, sorry, where was I? Oh yes, is there more to it than that?

    Reason is the only magazine I subscribe to. I was thinking of getting another one, and Wired was at the top of the list. Can you sell me on the Economist as something better?

  11. Sage-
    The Economist is an in-depth news magazine covering all categories of news, not just the economy. Good stuff, there.

  12. sage

    The Economist is more of a weekly newsmagazine. Think of Time or Newsweek only written by really, really smart people.

    It is very good. Probably the best of it’s type. It was founded in the 1840’s to campaign for free trade.

  13. sage-

    Despite its name, the Economist is not an economics journal. It’s a news magazine that covers news around the world as well as science news, business news, and book reviews. They lay their bias on the table and present analysis with their reporting.

    Their bias is quasi-libertarian. They are unabashedly fans of the free market, even though they acknowledge a role for the public sector. Of course, the role that they accept for the public sector would be unacceptable to the purists on this forum, but the fact remains that there is a definite libertarian sympathy in their reporting.

    I highly recommend it. Check out a copy at your local news stand, and then subscribe if you like it.

  14. the economist is food for your brain. you may not like eating your veggies, young sage, but it’s still Good For You (TM).

    seriously, i like the economist. good stuff.

  15. Isaac said it better: Time or Newsweek but written by really, really smart people with strong libertarian sympathies.

    If I were President, I would invite their editorial board to serve as my advisors. Hell, if there’s a natural-born US citizen on their editorial board I’d vote for him or her for President.

  16. three cheers (literally) for the economist.

  17. All right, you guys sold me. I thought I would like Wired because they cover the effect of technology on our culture, but I’m not sure I want to slog through 18 pages of ads to get to the table of contents. So I will check it out. Thanks, all.

  18. I’m a fan of the Economist too. It’s a good source of world news. If you want to know what happened in Africa last week–talk about soap opera–and elsewhere, the Economist gets you up to date fast.

    You might be surprised to hear that the Wall Street Journal does movie reviews, etc. too.

    I was readin’ it at the counter at Mimi’s one day, and there was this kid messin’ with the part of my paper that I wasn’t reading. I give his dad a look like if you don’t get your kid off my paper, I’m gonna eat him for dessert; so this grown man leans over his kid and, in baby talk, says, “That’s the Wall Street Journal Tyler. If you learn how to read that, you’ll get rich!”

    …The guy made it sound like one of those computer generated 3-D posters, like if little Tyler just let his eyes go unfocused… Anyway, I turned my attention back to the opera review, and Daddy-O grabs the paper out of his kid’s hands. He says, “I didn’t know they wrote about sports?”

    Then he looked at me like I was supposed to respond.

  19. Add another to the list of reasonistas who like the Economist. My only problem with them is that they are very expensive.

    Also, I just got the first issue of a trial subscription to the Christian Science Monitor. I decided to check it out after hearing it praised by someone else here, despite having reservations about anything identified as Christian. Looks solid so far.

  20. I enjoyed the article, it was very well written. I don’t think the journalist are smart enough to do this intentionally nor do they have the motives to.
    Their views are biast but they are unaware of it. John Stossel alludes to this in “Give me a Break”.

  21. while we’re circle-jerking, i get the economist too.

    can we consider, however, that having a biased press encouraged by a free market can be a very bad thing? as our postcivilization gets more nihilistic and individualistic, we are actively seeking indulgence in fantasy as an alternative to reality. ergo the spectacular rise of spectator sport, mass entertainment, et al. and i think it obvious that we as a culture seek more entertainment than information in news.

    in other words, the information market is seeking (and getting) pleasant falsehoods — circuses, please, anything but the harsh truth. nowhere is it written in god’s hand that the rise of mass entertainment media has to be compatible with a healthy, continuing democracy.

    so is it? or is market-driven infotainment undermining popular sovereignty?

  22. gaius, out of curiosity, where do you get your hard, harsh truths from?

    i would reckon – yessir – that there is indeed a market for hard, harsh truths as well. (tailored, of course, to each individual demographic’s sense of hard, harsh truth…traditionalists, radicalists, religionists, etc)

  23. where do you get your hard, harsh truths from?

    the economist, of course! 🙂

    i would reckon – yessir – that there is indeed a market for hard, harsh truths as well. (tailored, of course, to each individual demographic’s sense of hard, harsh truth…traditionalists, radicalists, religionists, etc)

    to be fair, it does. but the market for fantasy and distraction is about 50 times its size now.

    mind you, i have no path to what mclaughlin calls metaphysical certitude. i’m simply asking: does a mass infotainment culture catering to millions of escapists serve the interests of sound self-government? you can probably guess what i think.

  24. “Look at me. I’m reading The Economist. Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?”

  25. The Economist spends too much ink detailing things that seem unimportant to me. Perhaps I’m not global enough, but most of the African “soap opera” is not relevant to my life of thought.

    The CSM does seem to keep the Christian perpsective separate from the representation of fact. Even the cultural and soft stories, where Christian perspective seems a stronger influence, offers valuable insight without feeling pompous or dictatorial. When I can afford it, I subscribe.

    Generally, I have been opposed to the phony notion of “objective news”. Everybody has a perpsective, and I would rather hear what people think from their own angle than hear what they think will appear neutral. It is a bit more work (or I have time for fewer topics), but I’m more satisfied amalgamating Fox, CNN, Reason, BBC, Al-J, etc. The truth is usually in the middle.

  26. “to be fair, it does. but the market for fantasy and distraction is about 50 times its size now.”

    perhaps. it’s fair to remember that your or my hard harsh facts are tossed into the fantasy and distraction basket by someone else cataloging the truth-to-stupid ratio.

    one thing i have noticed from people, perhaps more forcefully than before, is the unrelenting idea that more government is required for [fill in whatever you like here]. perhaps it was just as strong 10 years ago, and i did not notice it because of my politics or personal focus or whatever, but the past three months have put me in touch with quite a few grad students who seem to think that the only thing holding a bright future back is the exacting scalpel of government.

    sadly, no one has told them this only exists in their own minds.

    the economist will generally not leave one feeling warm and fuzzy, but it certainly helps take the edge off the night terrors. (and not just by putting people to sleep, har har)

  27. To ignore what’s happening everywhere except North America and Europe is to ignore what’s happening.

    For people that are interested in what’s going on elsewhere, the Economist provides a good, quick rundown. That’s all. Who else does the quick international rundown better than the Economist?

  28. Ken: The Monitor has an excellent world service. For a given amount of time, a reader can get a broader picture there than in the Economist. CSM also regularly covers culture and taste issues around the world, a bigger “substance of style” representation than Economist’s listing various blowhard views on the near-term future of currency markets and their impact on Indonesian politics. If you’ve got the time, read everything everywhere.

    (I’m kind of baiting anyone who thinks they’re extra smart because they read the Economist.)

  29. (I’m kind of baiting anyone who thinks they’re extra smart because they read the Economist.)

    Eeeeeeuuuuuwww! The Economist says! The Economist says! I read The Economist! Aren’t I cool? Aren’t you impressed with me?

    What do you read? Time? Newsweek? Those are for people who can’t handle a real news magazine like the one I read. That’s because you’re not as smart or sophisticated as me.

    On weekends, I like to sit out on my porch in my wicker chair with my bifocals and my subscription copy of The Economist. Then, when I go to a professor’s wine-and-cheese party later that night, I can casually mention all the fancy stuff I read about NASA and Venezuela and Gen. Pervez Musharraf in my fancy magazine and impress everybody.

    Question: Do you think I’m smarter than everyone else because I read The Economist, or do I read The Economist because I’m smarter than everyone else? Now, there’s a conundrum! I should mail that one in to The Economist and see what they think!

    Oh, no! My brain just got larger! Help! I need more knowledge to fill up the new brains! Get me the new issue of The Economist at once! I can’t live if I’m even remotely unaware of anything that is happening in the universe! I must have my weekly issue of The Economist, or I risk de-evolving into the sort of mouth-breathing rabble by which I am surrounded daily!

    I say, old chap, here comes Lord Smartingford of Braintonshire! Shall we dine upon a nice cup of tea, then? We can discuss the economy, and the global situ-AYYY-tion, and ever so many other matters! I am so very versed in such matters, reading as do I The Economist, just as soon as the postman delivers it by the estate, don’t you know. I find that only the right cracking coverage of The E-CON-omist keeps me jolly-well informed and all that, wouldn’t you agree? Mmm, yes, I did think you would!

    Fuckin’ prick.

  30. The Economist lost me on the lead up to the Iraq war. I felt they were tossing softball questions as if they were the NYT or the Washington Times. The Economist appeared to jump on the Iraq war bandwagon. Simply put, they towed the line just like every other publication.

    The Daily Show was pretty much the only “news” organization that challenged the Iraq war fervor. And they are supposed to be fake….

  31. I have to agree with Glen, above—I am one of the most overrated magazines on the market. Certainly I have libertarian sympathies, with the benefit of an occasional dose of reality, but do you ever read my articles? They all follow the same formula!

    Either:
    (a) phenomenon X looks promising, but when we look more closely…
    or:
    (b) phenomenon Y looks scary, but the free market will prevail!

    (mutatis mutandis)

    Now if I were written by real economists, you would be able to spend days arguing about whether I had reached any conclusion at all. (Or then again, maybe I am written by real economists—all my articles are anonymous!)

    I do recommend the captions to my pictures though. It amounts to about 20 words per week, with at least two or three genuinely funny quips.

  32. Mr. Schraft: Clearly you are not a member of the club. I must remind Benson to be more diligent about allowing outsiders access.

    Although some may suggest reading the Economist increases one’s intellectual capacity, I submit that such a view is analogous to maintaining the donning of an appropriate jersey converts the wearer into a football star. Applause must be given to the marketing department, as they have given the aspiring class what DeBeers has given newlyweds.

  33. On weekends, I like to sit out on my porch in my wicker chair with my bifocals and my subscription copy of The Economist.

    That’s it, I’m getting no-line bifocals so noone can tell I’m wearing them.

  34. Timely and amusing, I received my Economist invoice today. The attached thank-you letter begins, “With pleasure, The Economist welcomes you to our select circle of influential readers.”

    Wow, for only $49.90 I get to be Influential and part of a Select Group for the next six months. I can hardly wait for my Penthouse invoice so I can be complimented on my masterful command of my enormous wang.

  35. If you want to be really intellectual, it is not sufficient to merely subscribe to The Economist. You must also not own a television set.

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