Bias in Reporting?November 14, 2009
Roger Pielke Sr. has a post up on his blog in which he charges that the news media have a bias in their reporting. As evidence of this, he links to three climate-related press releases that came out on the same day, one of which records record high and low temperatures, the other two of which point to land use changes and their impacts on climate.
His post is interesting for what it intimates, but I think he’s overstepping by suggesting that there’s a media bias. At least, what he offers as evidence isn’t strong enough to support such a claim. There are three related questions here, none of which he addresses. First, is this actually bias? Second, if so, what is this bias privileging? And third, is there anything problematic about this bias?
On the first question, I can think of several other explanations that help me understand why some articles are getting more press than others. One is that the question about high and low temperatures (surface or otherwise) is more interesting to more people — much like the horrific story of the chimpanzee that ate a woman’s face — so the media may be more likely to might pick it up. Another is that NCAR has more sophisticated public relations machinery than Georgia Tech or Purdue. Yet a third is that, notwithstanding the sophistication of the public relations machinery, the press releases may simply have not been distributed in the right way. Many, many good ideas don’t get picked up by the press. Many, many good books don’t make it out onto the market. Many, many good musicians, artists, actors, academics, thinkers, businesspeople, products, ideas, patents, stories and on and on don’t make it into the limelight. These missed successes don’t have much to do with bias. They have more to do with bad packaging, branding, promulgation, promotion, uniqueness, and other such factors.
On the second question, it’s unclear to me what the alleged bias might be privileging. Is it that the media privileges surface temperature data over their causation? That it privileges CO2 and GHG causal explanations over land use explanations? That it downplays land use questions due to some inherent objection to GHGs? Or due to some bucolic and romanticized view of land? Or due to lack of information? Or is it that it privileges information that comes from institutions with a bigger and more impressive sounding name? (No offense to Purdue and Georgia Tech, but NCAR is clearly the heaviest hitter in the climate arena.) I’m only getting started. There are many more questions.
On the third question, is this alleged bias problematic? In other words, we can understand a bias either observationally and descriptively — as in, it is descriptively the case that A has a bias for Y things over Z things — or we could understand the bias normatively and prescriptively — as in, it ought to, or ought not to, be the case that A has a bias for Y things over Z things. If we understand it descriptively, then we run into the problem that we cannot observe bias. We only ever observe behaviors, which may or may not indicate bias. The fact that A continues to publish Y things over Z things is not necessarily evidence of bias. In order to demonstrate bias, we need to identify salient features of the issues in question and determine whether the selection of Y over Z things makes sense. And that raises our prescriptive concern. If we understand the charge of bias prescriptively, then we run into the problem of justification, partly nodded at above. There are indeed times to when it makes sense to privilege Y things over Z things, as when an issue is more salient, or more interesting, or sexier, or easier to understand, or will sell more papers, or fits with a given narrative, all tied up in a tidy deferential package to the question of what it is that the media are in place to do.
Whatever the case, we need much more information to levy a charge of media bias. Citing three press releases and stating that the “news community clearly has a bias in its reporting” won’t cut the proverbial mustard.