Newspaper bias: just another social network

Profit maximising slant

There’s a fascinating study on newspaper bias by University of Chicago professors Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro which identifies the political bias of particular newspapers based on the frequency with which certain phrases appear.

The professors then correlate that placement with the political leanings of the newspaper’s own markets, and find

“That the most important variable is the political orientation of people living within the paper’s market. For example, the higher the vote share received by Bush in 2004 in the newspaper’s market (horizontal axis below), the higher the Gentzkow-Shapiro measure of conservative slant (vertical axis).”

Interestingly, ownership is found to be statistically insignificant once those other factors are accounted for.

James Hamilton, blogging about the study, asks:

“How slant gets implemented at the ground level by individual reporters. My guess is that most reporters know that they are introducing some slant in the way they’ve chosen to frame and report a story, but are unaware of the full extent to which they do so because they are underestimating the degree to which the other sources from which they get their information and beliefs have all been doing a similar filtering. The result is social networks that don’t recognize that they have developed a groupthink that is not centered on the truth.” [my emphasis]

In other words, the ‘echo chamber’ argument (academics would call it a discourse) that we’ve heard made so many times about the internet.

It’s nice to be reminded that social networks are not an invention of the web, but rather the other way around.

h/t Azeem Azhar

6 thoughts on “Newspaper bias: just another social network

  1. Bill Bennett

    Surely this is going to happen if a journalist is serving his or her readers correctly, covering the stories they are concerned about and generally reporting on local goings on?

    Of course there could be bias, but would you expect a newspaper aimed at farmers is biased toward farming topics?

  2. Paul Bradshaw

    Well we can hardly suggest that journalists ignore their readers in the pursuit of some abstract and unattainable notion of objectivity/neutrality – for all sorts of reasons. But we can try to be aware of the nature of our systems and practices, be transparent about those, and avoid being entirely shaped by them. This, for me, is one of the reasons why studying journalism as an academic subject (education) rather than just as a skill (training) is increasingly important.

    But this isn’t what the blog post was really about – it was pointing out that the echo chamber argument doesn’t just apply to new media.

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