Everything You Think About the Media Is Wrong

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

We have heard it many times. We in the mass media are ignorant and deceptive partisans, propagandists, and shills. The rest of us are just mindless puppets. The 24-hour news cycle is responsible for dividing America and dumbing down political discourse. In short, modern journalism is the worst thing to happen to the U.S. since Justin Bieber crossed the border.

True, journalism isn’t perfect. But such widespread disdain toward journalists is predicated upon exaggerations and misconceptions. A recent, eye-opening literature review by a professor from Stockholm University in Annual Review of Economics examined the impact of the mass media on society and politics. Its findings were far less grim than what is commonly believed. Below are the most notable highlights from the paper:

1. The media makes people better informed and more politically active. However, it rarely changes voting intention. This is because people rarely change their voting intention in the first place and also because they tend to get their news from sources that share their viewpoint. Though it is widely believed that this is a modern phenomenon in an era dominated by partisan outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC, that is simply not true. Research in the 1940s noted the pattern back then.

2. Most large media outlets in the U.S. are centrist. The author cites a 2005 study that concluded that, while most newspapers are center-left, 18 of the 20 media outlets it examined held political positions that were in between Joe Lieberman (a centrist Democrat) and Susan Collins (a centrist Republican).

3. Yes, a partisan media contributes to polarization. But it should be kept in mind that partisan media simply strengthens preexisting divisions in society.

4. Newspaper endorsements only matter if they are unexpected. If the New York Times endorsed a Republican, it would matter. People would notice, and many would change their voting intention. But since the New York Times has endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate in every single election since 1960, nobody will care when it endorses the Democrat in 2016.

5. The “Fox News Effect” is small. Liberals love to blame Fox News for putting Republicans in government. But research shows that, as Fox News was slowly introduced in homes during the 1990s, the boost to Republicans was merely 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points.

6. Newspaper bias is driven more by consumer demand than by owners’ interests.This finding probably comes as a surprise to those who claim that the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is dictated by Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, the author writes, “Two newspapers belonging to the same chain are not ideologically closer than two randomly chosen newspapers, once geographical factors are taken into account.”

7. Partisan media outlets report on scandals, even if it involves politicians they like. However, the outlet won’t cover it to the same extent. If a centrist paper covers a Republican scandal with four articles, a left-wing paper would write five, while a right-wing paper would write only three.

8. It is not known if partisan media causes the government to enact bad policy. No empirical data exists. One might predict that partisan media would lead to fewer voters being properly informed, which itself would lead to less political accountability and worse policy outcomes. Yet, that’s not necessarily true. Partisan media outlets can become specialized in those issues that its readers and viewers care about. For instance, conservatives, many of whom are mostly concerned with business and economic policy, can read the Wall Street Journal; liberals, many of whom are mostly concerned with social policy, can read the New York Times.

9. The media is inconsistent in what it considers to be “newsworthy,” and this adversely affects policy. Case-in-point: The author states, “46 times as many people must be killed in a disaster in Africa to achieve the same probability of being covered by the television network news as an otherwise similar disaster in Eastern Europe.” When journalists turn a blind eye to suffering in Africa, so do our politicians.

10. High levels of media coverage tend to make politicians better behaved. The author cites research that showed that Congressmen from districts with a lot of media coverage tended to be less extreme and more focused on their constituents. (This is a rather counterintuitive finding, considering that the national media rewards the loudest and most obnoxious partisans with television time.) Additionally, greater media coverage often translates into better policy.

Clearly, the American media has a net positive effect on society. And the media, as a whole, is more centrist and fair than the talking heads would have you believe. Still, if you disagree, you always have the freedom to change the channel.

Source: David Strömberg. “Media and Politics.” Annual Review of Economics Vol. 7: 173-205. Published online 18-Mar-2015. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-economics-080213-041101