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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Demand Creates Its own Supply

Do newspapers exhibit political bias? If so, what drives the bias, the views of the people supplying the news, the owners, editors, etc., or the views of those demanding the news, i.e. the readers?:

Lean Left? Lean Right? News Media May Take Their Cues From Customers, by Austan Goolsbee, Commentary, Economic Scene, NY Times: When Matt Lauer declared ... last week that NBC would start referring to the conflict in Iraq as a “civil war,” he inadvertently started his own civil war within the news media. Fox News refused to follow suit, saying that non-Iraqis were involved in the fighting, “and that makes it something different.” Accusations of partisanship arose all around. ...

When [politicians] perceive partisan slant in the news ..., they typically interpret it as evidence of underlying bias by reporters or media owners. But one of the most interesting things coming out of research on the economics of the media industry has been the notion that media slant may simply reflect business rather than politics.

New research by two University of Chicago economists, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, entitled “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence From U.S. Daily Newspapers” compiles some compelling and altogether unusual data to answer the question.

Dr. Gentzkow and Dr. Shapiro ... parsed the words of politicians — all the words — from the 2005 Congressional Record. They found the 1,000 most partisan phrases uttered in the year. ...

In 2005, phrases like “death tax,” “illegal aliens,” “Terri Schiavo,” and “nuclear power” came mostly from Republicans. Phrases like “minimum wage,” “public broadcasting,” “middle class” and “oil companies” came mostly from Democrats. Using those phrases, the two economists made a simple index of partisanship that comported nicely with standard measures...

The study then analyzed 417 newspapers in the United States ... The researchers measured, for example, all the times in articles about Social Security that a newspaper referred to “personal accounts” (Republican) or to “private accounts” (Democratic). ... They did not include anything from the editorial page.

The index matched most popular perceptions of newspaper partisanship. Papers like The Washington Times or The Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City used Republican phrases while papers like The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe used Democratic ones.

But more important, once the authors had this measure, they 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. ...

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.” ...

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. Indeed, the study found that the views of the owner had no significant effect on the slant of the newspaper. ...

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. ...

    Posted by on Wednesday, December 6, 2006 at 09:05 PM in Economics, Politics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (21)

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