Monday, June 9, 2008

On Media Bias

I just wanted to make a point about something.
When there's some sort of heated debate going on, you'll often hear one side complain of "Media Bias," that the news outlets are out to get them and discredit them and will favor one side of the story. While this undoubtedly happens in some media outlets (coughcoughFoxnewscough) the majority of media outlets, ESPECIALLY print media, where people make less money and tend to be more idealistic, tend to strive to get both sides of a story.
This isn't a perfect system, for one, there are usually at least three sides to any disagreement (ie., my side, his side, and what actually happened) and this compulsion to get a contrasting viewpoint can actually lead to a bias, but not what the pundits usually mean when they scream "Media Bias!"

I will offer, by way of example, Global Warming.
Now, most scientists, for the sake of argument we'll say 98%, agree that:
1. In spite of annual fluctuations, the Earth's climate is following a warming trend
2. This is bad news, generally for life as we know it, and adversely affects many plants, animals and people
3. The actions of mankind, as a species, is contributing to this warming trend, and is responsible for it to a yet-undertermined degree
4. We, as a species, would be better off taking some big, but theoretically acheivable, steps to make this problem, if not better, than at least less bad

OK, still with me?

So, say you're a local newspaper that wants to do a story on Global Warming (a very topical story right here in New Jersey today). You call a bunch of scientists, say, a biologist, a couple meteorologists, and a few others. Say you get 7 guys or girls who are willing to talk about Global Warming as a reality, and as a bad thing. Now, your editor says "well, if we don't present the opposing viewpoint, we won't be fair."
So, you start making some phone calls. To get your 7 "Global Warming is real" guys you made, maybe, eight or nine phone calls. To get some Global Warming skeptics, you probably have to make ten phone calls before you get a single one, unless you know somebody, or have spoken to someone before, or get a reference to somebody from one of your other scientists. Or, I suppose, you could just call the oil company (although it depends on which company, you might be hard pressed even there).
So you end up with 7 global warming experts, all of whom have advanced degrees and have been published in peer-reviewed literature, and 3 global warming skeptics, only one of whom has a doctorate, one of them claims to be a scientists, but won't tell you where his degree is from, and the other one is a blogger on a neoconservative web site (I specify neocon here because, if you think about it, environmentalism is a conservative value, but that's another rant).

So you present your story, where your 7 say yes, global warming is real, and 3 others dispute it. In reality, you make is seem as if 30% of experts think global warming is a crock, whereas the real numbers are just 2% (hypothetical numbers here, remember, I haven't done a survey or anything). You end up, in fact, with an EXREME favor of the global warming skeptics. And someone will still complain.

Ponder that one a bit.