Why the media has a liberal bias

It is not because most reporters are liberal. It is because the mental structures of reporting give even a conservative a liberal slant. Why?

Most people understand the world through stories. We all carry various stories and assumptions around with us in our heads. We need them to simplify confusing reality. When we get new information, we try to jam it into the preexisting structures of the stories. The trouble is many of the common stories are outdated or misleading. How?

We understand events better if humans are involved or if we can personify impersonal forces. People do this all the time with animals and forces of nature. Journalists are people too and they have trouble accepting that a modern free market economy is determined by impersonal forces or more precisely by an aggregate of decisonmakers. The the wisdom of crowds is almost always better than the wisdom of experts, but it is certainly less satisfying not to have individuals to praise or blame. We look for villains and heroes but sometimes there really aren't any of either type. The "heartless" firm that lays off workers often has few alternative. The boss, like King Canute, can order the tide not to rise, but his feet will still get wet.

Speaking of villains and heroes, we like stories where the underdog wins. This happens rarely in real life. That is sort of the definition of an underdog. Beyond that, underdogs often deserve to lose because they are less prepared, less intelligent or just plain lazy. Again it speaks to the definition of being an underdog, but goes against the dominant story frame, where the deserving underdog goes up against the big oppressor. The journalistic credo to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable is often unjustified by facts. But journalists like everyone else, have mental models to organize facts. Often unconsciously, they find what they expect.

The biggest reason why the stories are wrong is that they don't take sufficient account of risk and random chance. Many things happen for no particular reason and no plans work out exactly as envisioned. Yet the stories we believe lead us to another conclusion. Even people directly involved fool themselves with ex-post-facto certainty. Ask the winner of any sporting event. He tells you that he was always certain that he would win and that his plan would work. He is telling the truth. But if the wind had shifted a little and changed the outcome of that game winning field goal, the other guy would be telling you the same thing with just as much conviction.

So how does this make journalism liberal? The personification of impersonal decisions plays into the hands of big government advocates with the paradigm that political leaders and their experts guide the economy with some precision. The same idea makes the businessperson look craven. If he would just be willing to give up "excess" profits, prices would be lower and everyone would have a job. If it were only so easy. Finally the lack of understanding of the risk and randomness in life opens us to "experts", whose self interest is to identify horrible problems and advise bigger and more comprehensive government solutions (with lots of jobs for experts) to remedy them. Sometimes the best advice is just to leave it alone and wait, but nobody ever hired an expert to tell them that.

The fact is that we have a lot more government than we need and we ask it to solve problems that it can't solve because our stories tell us we need someone to run things that run better by themselves.

Posted by Jack at August 15, 2005 12:01 AM