Hostile Media Syndrome

HOSTILE MEDIA SYNDROME….Shankar Vedantam writes in the Washington Post about a paper on perceptions of media bias that was published in 1985 but is newly relevant today:

Partisans, it turns out, don’t just arrive at different conclusions; they see entirely different worlds. In one especially telling experiment, researchers showed 144 observers six television news segments about Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon.

Pro-Arab viewers heard 42 references that painted Israel in a positive light and 26 references that painted Israel unfavorably.

Pro-Israeli viewers, who watched the very same clips, spotted 16 references that painted Israel positively and 57 references that painted Israel negatively.

The original paper is here. Note that the point of the paper has nothing to do with whether the news segments themselves were biased or unbiased. The point is that partisans always judge the media to be hostile to their position. Vedantam comments on the effect this has on reporters in a followup Q&A:

The sense inside newsrooms that you are doing your job when you are getting beaten up by both sides is very ingrained. Many reporters wear the fact that everyone hates them as a badge of pride. Of course, that can lead to problems of its own, since reporters are obviously not completely above criticism. Sometimes, one side’s criticism may be right!

The belief that you’re doing OK if both sides hate you has always struck me as infantile. Vedantam is right: maybe one side’s criticisms are right. More to the point, maybe both sides’ criticisms are right. It’s quite possible to write something so bad that everyone has a legitimate beef.

But then again, not always. Sometimes, the media bias really is all in your mind.