Is “media bias” just good business?

by on December 7, 2006 at 8:13 am in Economics | Permalink

Austan Goolsbee writes (no permalink yet) of Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, and their paper “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence From U.S. Daily Newspapers“.  The non-gated version is here.

In essence the authors measure how much newspapers use key partisan phrases like "personal accounts" for social security privatization and compare the vocabularies of those newspapers to the vocabularies of partisan politicians.  The political slant of newspapers is then matched to campaign contributions in the zip codes those newspapers serve.  Shapiro sums up the result:

The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant
to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will
maximize their sales. 

It also turns out that the political views of the paper’s owner have no effect on the slant of the paper.

Here is my previous post on wunderkind Jesse Shapiro.  He remains the best Youngling out there.  Here is an earlier piece I wrote on media bias.

1 eriks December 7, 2006 at 9:52 am

I’m not convinced. One of the main examples the author uses is the dichotomy between “death tax” and “estate tax”. Shapiro says that using the phrase “estate tax” is Democratic in that it is used more by Democrats than by Republicans–fair enough. However, it is hardly slant; it is an accurate description of the tax. The term “death tax” is slant, while “estate tax” is neutral. The author even notes:

“Republicans put a high level of importance on the death/estate tax language–they had to work hard to get members to act in unison, including training members to say “death tax”… Estate tax sounds like it only hits the wealthy but “death tax” sounds like it hits everyone” (p.11)

Yet use of the phrase “estate tax” is deemed leftward slant.

The same is true for other tax related phrases. Using charged phrases like “tax relief” is deemed a slant equal to referring to actual spending cuts. Also, since when is “veterans health care” a Democratic phrase?

Further, ownership slant is perhaps measured better by the type and number of stories run on a subject (skepticism of the Iraq war, for instance) and how a story is cut by editors. Tom Ricks has seemed to suggest that his stories were sliced and diced by his editors for the past couple of years.

2 Omar December 7, 2006 at 10:46 am

Richard Posner wrote a great article almost a year and a half ago about this.

3 josh December 7, 2006 at 11:26 am

I always just assumed that everybody thought this already.

4 ptkelly December 7, 2006 at 3:15 pm

professor goolsbee unfortunately doesn’t go far enough with his commentary (perhpaps he’s censored himself given the liberal forum, but would be obvious extension from his fabulous Econ of TMT class at the GSB) – this is prime evidence that media ownership regulation is outdated and needs to be repealed.

5 Dan K December 7, 2006 at 5:06 pm

How does this research square w/Karlan et. al (and actual randomized control experiment) that says the difference between receiving the Wash Post/Times was worth about 8 points in the last gubernatorial elections in VA???

6 fling93 December 8, 2006 at 9:09 pm

It never made sense to me that any true conservative could believe a free market was biased. A much simpler explanation is that their perception of media bias was actually due to the hostile media effect.

7 Ray G December 9, 2006 at 2:43 pm

The first comment was along what I noticed also.

They seem to be looking for Right-wing bias. If they go out looking for more of one than another, they’ll find more of it to be sure, while bypassing Left wing slant altogether in many cases.

For anecdotal evidence, the Arizona Republic is largely out of step with their local demographics, but without a direct threat to their newspaper hegemony, they continue to be overtly Left-wing in their presentation. And the average citizen, if they buy anything, continue to buy the paper for lack of anything else to buy. (Yes, we are the state that voted for a very liberal female governor that most are quietly convinced is a lesbian, while simultaneously voting for a pile of ballot props that were deemed anti-immigrant by the Left i.e. English as an official language, and a few others.)

8 Anonymous October 13, 2008 at 11:27 pm

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