Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Bubble Effect

Write it down: in a confirmation of what many already knew, a national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (best known for creating FactCheck.org) shows that journalists and the public hold radically different views on the media. Some of the most notable results show that the average non-journalist puts less trust in the accuracy of journalism than the journalists themselves. Surprise, surprise. 48% of the public said news organizations were "often inaccurate," but just 11% of journalists agreed with them. To make matters worse for the journalism establishment, the survey was concluded on May 2; in other words, this was how the public felt before Newsweek published the now infamous Qu'ran-defacing story. I would be morbidly fascinated to see what they think now.

One bizarre difference between the media and the people is that the people do not seem to have a strong belief in freedom of the press. When asked if the government "has the right to limit the right of the press to report a story," 44% of journalists said "never," 48% of them said "rarely," and 9% said "sometimes." In the public, however, 29% said "never," 17% said "rarely," 37% said "sometimes," and 14% said "always." Oddly, conservative citizens surveyed were even more strict, with 21% saying "never" and 15% saying "rarely." Conservative journalists were slightly less lenient than the journalist community at large; 32% said "never" and 52% said "rarely." More on those conservative journalists later...let's just say they're a rare breed.

For the record, "rarely" is the correct answer in the United States due to prior restraint, which allows the government to stop a report from being published. The Supreme Court has ruled that prior restraint is unconstitutional except in extreme cases, specifically if a report would endanger national security. To date, prior restraint has not been successfully utilized against the press, in part because the Supreme Court disagrees with it so much that the justices would rather not enact it. (For more information on prior restraint, take a look at this website.)

If your head hasn't pitched forward and smashed your keyboard by now, my applause is due. If you slogged through the numbers and legalese to get to the really fun stuff, fear not, because I've got some incredible stats coming up. It's time for the political question: how do the American people stack up to the American journalists politically? Here's a breakdown.

Among the general public:

said they were liberal.
33% said they were moderate.
38% said they were conservative.

Among the journalists:

31% said they were liberal.
49% said they were moderate.
9% said they were conservative.

If you don't believe me, go check the numbers yourself. Do not adjust your monitor; you do not need glasses, your vision is fine. The survey really shows that only about 1 in 10 journalists claim to be conservative. Keep in mind that some of the "moderates" may be liberals experiencing a "bubble effect," which makes things look even more lopsided. (A rough translation of the bubble effect: it's heck on your politics when you work with like-minded people who reinforce your beliefs every single day.) This survey is child's play; when you get to Washington correspondents, most of the moderates get absorbed into the liberals. I've seen results of other surveys that claimed over 70% of the correspondents in D.C. were liberal.

I understand that journalists try to be impartial, but when the figures get this stilted, there needs to be a serious examination. Even this conservative knows that there is no singular bias in the media; just pick up a Washington Times or a Wall Street Journal if you want proof that conservative bias can and does exist. But the most dominant bias by far is of a liberal bent, and it is shared by far more publications than the WaTimes or WSJ could ever compensate for. This bias is completely unintentional (to be intentional violates journalistic ethics); the problem is, too many sharp journalists and their editors are hesitant to turn a critical eye on themselves. The growing creep of opinion into news has had a disturbing effect on the public too; 43% of the normal people surveyed thought it would be good "if some news organizations [had] a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news." Believe it or not, 16% of journalists agreed with them. That is truly alarming. The journalism I prefer is impartial, and while it may be impossible to attain a truly moderate outlook in the media, every move closer is an improvement. A great journalist must turn his attentions outwards on the job and inwards off of it. Only through self-criticism can we finally step out of the bubble.

(To see the full statistics and margins of error, consult the linked article.)


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