The Latest Word on Media Bias
Two University of Chicago economists have taken a new tack at measuring media bias and come to two conclusions that are doubtless shocking: first that media bias exists, and second it can be attributed to telling readers what they want to hear:
[The authors] showed that the main driver of any slant was the newspaper’s audience, not bias by the newspaper’s owner.
A comparison of circulation data (per capita) to the ratio of Republican to Democratic campaign contributions by ZIP code showed that circulation was strongly related to whether the newspaper matched the readers’ own ideology.
Their measure indicates that The Los Angeles Times, for example, is a liberal paper. Its circulation suffers in Southern California ZIP codes where donations to Republicans are especially high.
The authors calculated the ideal partisan slant for each paper, if all it cared about was getting readers, and they found that it looked almost precisely like the one for the actual newspaper. As Dr. Shapiro put it in an interview, “The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will maximize their sales.”
On one hand that sounds a little mercenary. On the other hand, there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.
The one part of the paper that strikes me as odd at first glance is this passage:
Consistent with Groseclose and Milyo (2005), we find that the average newspaper’s language is similar to that of a left-of-center member of Congress. However, we estimate that the profit-maximizing points are also left-of-center on average, perhaps because of demographic differences between readers and non-readers of newspapers, and we cannot statistically reject that the distributions of actual and ideal slant have the same mean.
The basic problem I see with this “profit-maximizing” theory is that newspaper readers tend to be of higher socioeconomic status and are more likely to be white than the average citizen–and both groups are significantly more likely to be Republican. Then again, it is possible that Republicans are more tolerant of left-of-center media slant than Democrats are of right-of-center slant, and thus the “ideal” slant in a typical circulation area is left-of-center–not because it best represents readers’ actual political preferences, but because it leads the fewest readers to cancel subscriptions.