Thursday, October 30, 2008

Media Bias and the Nature of News

A lot of hoopla has been generated by the findings of a recent Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism report where it was determined that McCain has received more unfavorable coverage than Obama. As has been widely discussed, the equally interesting news is that Obama has not been covered favorably... just more so in comparison to the negativity associated to the McCain campaign coverage.

But instead of rehashing and re-reporting what has already been widely discussed, I would like to introduce a tried and true lens on the media that for some reason seems to have escaped the discussions I've heard around this report: The nature of news.

News is a change from the status quo, and is usually either a problem or a solution. As we all can probably agree, there are many more problems than solutions in our world (heck, most of our lives are dedicated to solving problems, and there seems to be no end to the stream of problems). And, if we roughly round up that the world is comprised of 95% problems and 5% solutions, then the news is 95% problems and 5% solutions. Which means, of course, that news is inherently negative -- by a large proportion. Some examples of how this reality exerts itself include:
  • If you're near a city and watch your local news -- and your city is anything like Philadelphia, where I live -- you're going to see a preponderance of problems, couched as news. However, they do ensure a positive story for the final 5 minutes in an attempt to reduce suicide amongst their viewing audience.
  • If you're running a war, and the war is going badly, you're going to see a ton of news coverage focusing on all the problems, deaths, losses... and wonder why the media is so anti-patriotic so as to give the public a slanted view on all the activities happening in the war. Donald Rumsfeld consistently lamented about the media's coverage of the Iraq War.
  • Many more people read the obituaries in the newspaper than the birth notices.
  • A scandal is news; a well-run organization that simply meets expectations flies beneath the radar.
On the flip side, if someone discovers the cure to cancer, then that, too, would be news. But that falls into that 5% category.

So, is it any surprise that the campaign with more problems would equate to more news? Through this lens, of course not. In fact, if we agree on the media's natural bias towards news (compounded with news' inherent negative bias), this Pew study wouldn't have even had to be conducted.

No, it's not fair that when you're down, and help is needed the most, that the forces of nature do not work toward your advantage. But every system we put in place that is "self-managed" tends to mirror the harsh, efficient processes of nature and evolution: the weak get weaker and the strong get stronger.

Now, if the McCain campaign wants to advocate that someone or something should intervene to help ensure more even-handedness in political coverage, that's fine -- but now we're talking about introducing socialism into the media. Every time we feel that natural forces are too harsh and too unfair, the alternative is to appeal to our higher civic aspirations to intervene and temper the natural response in deference for the greater good. And this process is socialism.

When I started this article, I did not intend to conflate this Pew study with the McCain's campaign strategy of insinuating that Obama is a socialist, but the irony is just too rich to resist.