"That's the press, baby. The press. And there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing."
--Ed Hucheson (Deadline USA)
During some self study on media bias a month or so back, I ran across an interesting paper by Sutter (2001). An important assumption underpinning the study is that people prefer news sources that most align with their personal biases.
At first, I was troubled by that assumption, because it basically tosses the concept of demand for balanced, critical thought out the window. But the more I thought about, the more it seemed like a valid assumption.
In fact, the supporting argument is pretty straightforward. We know that humans possess general tendency for selective reasoning and confirmation bias (Klayman & Ha, 1987). This means that we seek out evidence that supports our view of the world and discount evidence that disconfirms it.
We also know that humans prefer pleasure over pain. When we consume information that is consistent with our point of view, it feels good and provides positive psychic income. Information that is inconsistent with our point of view is often painful to consume--perhaps to the point where it raises physical defensive mechanisms (increased heart rate, elevated adrenaline levels, yelling at the TV, etc.). Psychic income is likely to be negative in such a case.
As such, it stands to reason that people will seek the pleasure of consuming information that best fits their preference for bias.
One of the more robust findings in psychology is that people are generally overconfident (Thaler, 1999). Individuals rate their personal capacities for judgment highly (Stone, 1994). Our tendency to overestimate our analytical abilities leads to one of life's delicious ironies: although we all possess tendency for unbalanced, biased thought, we're liable to view ourselves as balanced, critical thinkers.
Because we're likely to consider ourselves balanced, critical thinkers, it stands to reason that we're prone to believe that the media sources that we frequent produce balanced content as well. And media outlets that we don't prefer are likely to be seen as biased through our eyes.
Media providers appear to see the marketing opportunity in this, as we can observe operators across the spectrum promoting that they are the ones producing balanced, unbiased content.
If there is demand for biased information, then suppliers will seek to satisfy demand in a manner that creates value. Currently, it appears that there is a large market for bias.
Klayman, J. & Ha, Y. 1987. Confirmation, disconfirmation, and information in hypothesis testing. Psychological Review, 94: 211-228.
Koehler, D.J. 1991. Explanation, imagination, and confidence in judgment. Psychological Bulletin, 110: 499-519.
Stone, D.N. 1994. Overconfidence in initial self-efficacy judgments: Effects on decision processes and performance. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 59: 452-474.
Sutter, D. 2001. Can the media be so liberal? The economics of media bias. Cato Journal, 20: 431-451.
Thaler, R.H. 1999. The end of behavioral finance. Financial Analysts Journal, 55(6): 12-17.