The Volokh Conspiracy

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Are Perceptions of Newsworthiness Contaminated by a Political Usefulness Bias?

Ha! Science now has a non-shocking answer that question: Yes, of course, they are.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


Do individuals tend to rate a story as more "newsworthy" if it backs up their side of a controversial issue? UC-San Diego's Hal Pashler and I thought such a bias was likely. But to assess this question more objectively, we created six pairs of hypothetical news stories, each describing an event that seemed likely to encourage people to adopt attitudes on the opposite side of a particular controversial issue (e.g. affirmative action and gay marriage). Here's an example of one of the pairs:

*A story about a hearing held by the police board in your city at which citizens expressed concern that police tactics used in the African-American community are counterproductive.

*A story reporting an 18% increase in robberies over the last 5 years in the downtown area of your city.

In total, 569 subjects were asked to evaluate the importance of these stories (and a number of "filler" stories) "to the readership of a general-circulation newspaper." They were specifically asked to disregard how interesting they themselves happened to find the event. After rating the stories, they were asked to indicate their own personal attitudes to the underlying six issues.

How did it turn out? You can guess, can't you? For all six issues, subjects rated stories as possessing greater intrinsic newsworthiness when they offered ammunition for "their side" of a controversy.

The article is entitled "Perceptions of Newsworthiness Are Contaminated by a Political Usefulness Bias," and it was published a week or two ago in Royal Society Open Science.

Is the point obvious? Evidently not to everybody. When it is pointed out that news staffs at newspapers across the country tend to be monolithically left of center, the response is often that this is not a problem, since the job of a news reporter is simply to report the truth, and truth is just truth. Well, that's not quite true … news reporters have to decide what stories are newsworthy (and what facts within stories are newsworthy).