Undercover Economist

May 21, 2010 11:25 pm

In search of hard facts about media bias

Political neutrality is admirable but impartiality is a luxury a commercial newspaper can ill-afford

In the last days of the British election campaign, The Sun depicted David Cameron in the style of Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Barack Obama, and claimed that Labour would, if elected, ban topless models on page three. (The topless models problem was doubtless just about to rise to the top of Labour’s agenda after 13 years.) The Mirror showed the Conservative leader in the costume of the quintessential posh-boy society, the Bullingdon Club, with “his chum Boris Johnson and all the other yahoos of the tuck shop”. The Times chose a photograph of Cameron looking wise, wistful, strong yet compassionate. The Guardian, which endorsed the Liberal Democrats, nevertheless handed a chunk of its front page to columnist Polly Toynbee, who in reporting Gordon Brown’s last-gasp revival with “a whisper of hope, a prayer” thoroughly erased the distinction between her emotions and those of the Labour party faithful she was interviewing.

In short, it was a typical election for the newspapers, each one setting out its political stall in its own style. (The Financial Times endorsed the Tories for the first time since 1987, although the newspaper aspires to keep its opinions firmly separated from its news reporting.) But why do newspapers take strong political positions? And while entirely unbiased reporting is an impossible dream, why don’t readers insist that their newspapers try harder to stick to the facts?

The obvious explanation is that proprietors use papers as political tools, pulling the strings until we puppets tick the right box. An alternative view is that readers do not want a determinedly unbiased reporting of dry facts, but wish to be entertained and to have our biases confirmed.

The economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro have studied this question in the US. First, they tried to produce a way of measuring bias: not just endorsements, but the language used in the newspaper. Electronically, they trawled congressional records to identify phrases used disproportionately by Republicans or Democrats. (“Death tax”, “war on terror”, and “stem cell” would identify this column as staunchly Republican, if I did not add “estate tax”, “Medicaid cuts” and “cost of the war”.)

Gentzkow and Shapiro then assumed that newspapers were slanted towards Democrats or Republicans depending on how often they echoed the language of the politicians themselves – an imperfect but objective method. They measured the political slant of each newspaper’s potential readers by looking at votes cast in the 2004 presidential election by zip code within a newspaper’s market, as well as the geographical distributions of campaign contributions.

They found something fascinating: the biases of newspapers closely reflected those of their potential readership, neither pushing to the extremes nor pulling to the centre. The identity of a newspaper’s owner, in contrast, explained very little of the paper’s content. This is exactly what one would expect from a newspaper which cared more about profitability than election results.

This is not to say that newspapers have no influence on readers. It’s just that the influence runs both ways. Readers of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are offered news which reinforces the way they look at the world, but such newspapers are careful to listen to their readers, too. Commercial survival depends on it.

Having moonlighted for the BBC during the election, I’ve witnessed its serious-minded attempts to be impartial. It’s not easy, but political neutrality is admirable and, as a journalist, rather addictive. But in a world full of left- and right-leaning customers, perhaps impartiality is a luxury a commercial newspaper can ill-afford.

Tim Harford is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’. His latest book is ‘Dear Undercover Economist’ (Little, Brown).

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