Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Agriculture and media bias

A small, rural Nebraska newspaper an Associated Press (AP) piece some time ago about cattle starving in Nebraska. The report said in essence that more than 240 cattle had starved to death because the cattle owners couldn’t afford to feed them. The AP reporter didn’t actually see any starved carcasses or directly interview his sources for the story. The research was done over the telephone from more than a thousand miles away. The writer concluded that cattle starvation was on the rise in Nebraska, was going to get worse, and that high feed costs were the culprit.

Further investigation of the claims the story made showed that cattle starvation numbers were actually down in Nebraska, and the sources cited by the AP writer had each been surprised that the printed story diverged so far from the truth. Each also complained that he or she had been quoted out of context or misquoted altogether.

Though the small, rural newspaper did run a piece rebutting the AP story, it was too little, too late. The small newspaper’s circulation was 5,000 rural High Plains readers, while the AP story had been picked up and printed nationwide.

Farmers and ranchers know that agricultural reporting in the major media is sharply biased against modern food production and toward today’s popular environmentalist ideology. Many Americans suspect that the major media is probably biased against conservative or classical liberal values and toward modern-day liberal values.

Most of us are quite sure that leftist media bias exists in this country, and now that fact has been proven empirically in extremely well-crafted and well-executed studies, each of which have been published in the best peer-reviewed journals in the land.

A few of the scientists conducting media bias research include Tim Groseclose, Ph.D.,  Professor of political science and economics at UCLA; Jeffrey Milyo, Ph.D., Professor of public Policy at Stanford University; Stephano DellVigna, Ph.D., Associate Professor of economics at U.C. Berkeley; Ethan Kaplan, Ph.D. Professor of economics at Stockholm University; and a host of others.

Why does media bias exist? Why is media bias important to Americans in general? Why is media bias important to farmers, ranchers, and consumers?

Before we delve into the empirical proof that liberal media bias exists, let’s be clear on one thing. Bias is defined as an inclination to hold or present a particular perspective while ignoring or minimizing the validity of alternative perspectives. Though the media is significantly biased to the left, this does not mean that they are untruthful. A few are dishonest, however, most journalists simply select the stories to cover which interest them, and then slant their reporting toward their own perspective while minimizing or ignoring alternative perspectives. They are, after all human.

By and large, journalists exist in a self-selected, highly left-biased work environment populated by like-minded people. They rarely, if ever, have discussions or significant interactions with those who hold different viewpoints. Each day they are surrounded by a workplace populated by colleagues who share and support their world view. This tends to strongly reinforce their sense of the correctness of the positions they hold within the framework of a leftist/liberal narrative.

To practice the journalism outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics takes a great deal of diligence, rigor, and detailed research. Journalists are voluntarily bound by this oath to provide objective reporting. Some do. But many, many more do not.

A complicating factor is that many newspapers and broadcast journalism outlets pick up and run stories from wire outlets like the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, etc. These stories are seldom if ever vetted by in-house staffs. And they nearly always follow the prevailing leftist political narrative in terms of content and “spin.”

Also, advocacy groups including The Humane Society of the U.S., the ethanol industry and others often flood newspapers and other outlets out well-crafted advocacy pieces written in the style of news stories.
In these tough economic times, which have hit the journalism industry especially hard, resulting in less advertising revenue, shrinking profit margins, and smaller reporter staffs, these advocacy pieces are often seen by editors as a boon – free, page-filling copy that they didn’t have to pay their own reporters to write. Such advocacy pieces are often run as straight news, though they are anything but complete, objective, or verified.

Thus, over time, a large, left-biased news organizations, and to some extent, well-heeled advocacy groups, change the common knowledge of the newsroom to left-biased common knowledge. In newsrooms across the land, there is an ever widening gap between what journalists actually know and what they think they know.

Subsequently, much of this left-biased common knowledge becomes incorporated into the common knowledge sets of news consumers, shifting their common knowledge base to the left as well.
This is one of the reasons media bias matters. It distorts our perception of reality. Farmers and ranchers aren’t under attack by mean people, they are under attack by consumers who are genuinely concerned about their food supply and about their planet, but whose basic understanding of agriculture and the Earth’s ecology have been distorted by the left-biased media, which bombards them ceaselessly with distorted news.

Now let’s look at how media bias can be scientifically proved. First, a recap of the scientific method, where a scientist has an idea, or hypothesis, tests the idea and fleshes it out into a theory, then tests the theory and shares the results with fellow scientists to reproduce or falsify on their own. A theory which passes this peer-review/reproduction process has more weight (or a smaller level of uncertainty) than one which does not pass the process.

In 2002, Professors’ Tim Groseclose of UCLA and Jeffrey Milyo, then of the University of Chicago but presently at Stanford University, began a research project with the goal of objectively measuring media bias. Their research project was ultimately published in the very prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics in November, 2005.

Groseclose wrote a follow-on book, Left Turn, published this year, in which he expanded on the paper he and Milyo authored.

The tools they chose to objectively measure bias were the Political Quotient (PQ) and the Slant Quotient (SQ).  PQ’s were determined by recording the roll-call votes of all members of Congress on 20 selected pieces of legislation, and then rating those votes on a scale of 1-100, where the higher the score the more liberal the vote, and vice versa. The 20 votes used in the study were chosen by the liberal interest group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Because Groseclose is an admitted conservative (a rarity in academia) he chose to use ADA-selected issue votes, which served to keep any personal conservative bias out of the research project. Calculating the PQ serves to quantify each Congress member’s objective conservatism, centrism, or liberalism. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) scored –4.1 and Jim DeMint (R-SC) 4.8 (very conservative). On the other end of the spectrum, Barney Frank (D-MA) scored 103.8 and Ron Dellums (D-CA) 107.4 (very liberal). Closest to the middle were Olympia Snowe (R-ME) at 47.9 and Ben Nelson (D-NE) 55.6.

In calculating media slant quotients, the researchers compared news stories from 20 major media outlets and treated them as if they had been speeches made by members of congress. To compute the SQ’s. Groseclose and Milyo counted citations to left- and right-leaning think tanks and “loaded political phrases” contained in the news stories. The “loaded political phrase” technique was pioneered by Matthew Gentzkow, Ph.D. and Jesse Shapiro, Ph.D., both Professors of economics at the University of Chicago.
Gentzkow and Shapiro demonstrated that the use of loaded political phrases reveals the political bias not only of members of congress, but of journalists and people in general. For instance, phrases a liberal would use include ‘veterans health care,’ ‘arctic national wildlife,’ ‘outing a CIA agent,’ ‘oil companies,’ ‘civil rights,’ and ‘Rosa Parks.’ Phrases a conservative would use include ‘personal retirement accounts,’ global war on terror,’ ‘partial-birth abortion,’ ‘stem cell,’ ‘death tax,’ and ‘illegal aliens.”

Using a statistical technique that relies in part on the Gentzkow-Shapiro method, Groseclose and Milyo were able to determine a precise SQ for each of the media outlets they studied.

The researchers weren’t surprised to find left media bias. They were surprised, however, at how pervasive and far left the bias was.

They found that the least biased major media outlets were The Washington Times and Fox news Special Report with Brit Hume, coming in at about 44.2, similar to the PQ of Susan Collins, (R-ME). The most biased outlets were The Wall Street Journal and CBS Evening News, which came in at 85 and 73 respectively, similar to the PQ’s of  Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT). The remainder of the media outlets ranged from 55 to 73, or on par with strongly left-leaning members of Congress.

Interestingly, the media outlets’ SQ’s grouped much more closely to the score of the “average democrat” in congress (PQ about 85) than they did to the “average republican” in congress (PQ about 15). And in fact, the SQ’s for all of the media outlets examined were higher (that is, more leftist) than the mean value of 50.
Considering that congress represents individual citizens rather than the more nebulous idea of “states,” the PQ’s of congress probably make a fair representation of the PQ of the average American. That is, they describe a graphed distribution curve with a few outliers on the fringes but with the bulk of the population grouped a bit more tightly within 10 points or so of the middle, or between 40 and 60.

Groseclose and Milyos’ research shows that the bulk of the media is considerably left-biased when compared to most of the population. The media’s distribution curve is similar to that of the population, with outliers on each fringe, but with the media clustering between 55-75.

The average PQ for the population in general is 50; the average for the media in general is 65. That’s quite a difference.

Erring on the side of objectivity, Groseclose and Milyo chose to use the more liberal data when data sets diverged slightly. Therefore, Groseclose believes the evidence shows that the media is actually about six points more left-biased than the findings he and Milyo published.

Now why is this bias important?

Many argue that left-biased media is countered by right-biased media such as talk radio, conservative internet Web-sites, and Fox News. However, the left-biased media is much larger and has been in place far longer than right-biased media, and it reaches hundreds of millions of media consumers rather than the few million reached by right-biased media.

More importantly, we’re all susceptible to the fundamental trap of judging media bias. To determine whether the media is biased, we need to compare it to an outside, independent source of information. Yet most of us get the bulk of our information from the media. Now remember, the left-biased media rarely lies about details, they only present information in a biased light. If we don’t compare this biased information to an objective and independent source of information, we get only a biased, or distorted, world view.

To borrow from Groseclose, if our only source of information were televised basketball, we would think basketball of ultimate importance to humanity, and that 6’8” is the size of a normal person. We would conclude that a six-footer was a dwarf.

It is possible to get information from outside, independent sources, such as professional journals and personal interaction with experts. But this takes a lot of work. Many of us become, over time, absolute experts in our chosen fields. But in doing so, we sacrifice potential investigation time on the altar of our own professional development. We then turn to the media for information about the rest of the world. And the media gives us a distorted view of that world. Far better if the media were less biased, and gave us a clearer picture of the world.

To borrow from Groseclose again, let’s take guns, for example. Like any tool, guns may be used to good and bad purpose. Let’s imagine, and I’ll again use Groseclose’s numbers here, that guns are used for good 30 percent of the time and for bad 70 percent of the time. An objective media would then run gun stories at that ratio – 70 bad gun stories for every 30 good gun stories.

When did you last see a good gun story in the major media?

In judging media bias, there is also the problem of the alpha intellectual – that person who feels he is immune from the fundamental trap because he is more informed or better educated than most. Such a person is actually more likely to fall prey to the fundamental trap, because he self-selects the media he trusts, largely based on what his trusted media sources tell him. In the case of the alpha intellectual, the fundamental trap becomes a circular trap.

Farmers and ranchers come up against media bias and alpha intellectuals ensnared in their own circular fundamental traps all the time. Many people believe that farmers and ranchers are destroying the ecology of the planet with toxic chemicals and pumping their livestock full of hormones and antibiotics, putting humanity at great risk in their greed for ever increasing profit.

Farmers and ranchers know this isn’t so, but it is still the distorted world view peddled by the left-biased media.

So far, we’re looking at a pretty grim picture. Farmers and ranchers are only 1-2 percent of the population, yet they are beset from all sides by distorted stories and beliefs about the way they grow food. The other 98-99 percent of the population is in a similar boat, because they must eat to survive, have only the farmers and ranchers to rely upon to supply them with food, and are beset from all sides by distorted stories and beliefs about food production.

But there is some good news.

Despite the fact that the left-biased media has over time shifted common knowledge, they haven’t shifted common sense. American consumers continue to eat every day, and neither they, nor the people around them, routinely succumb to deadly agricultural toxins, hormones or antibiotics. Their common sense tells them that while there may be merit in the stories they hear and see in the media, there’s nothing wrong with the food they eat.

There are also things we can do to protect ourselves from the brunt of left-biased media.

First of all, we can stop believing in the myth of the objective journalist. They don’t exist. Therefore, there will always be at least some bias in the news you consume.

Secondly, knowing that the news you see and hear is biased, do two things: Check facts and use your own common sense. If reality doesn’t jibe with reporting, go with reality every time.

Finally, farmers and ranchers can invite members of the media to visit their operations. This will take courage, but what worthy goal doesn’t require courage? Understand that even in rural America, only a vanishing few journalists have ever been on a farm or ranch. Be prepared to spend a lot of time answering basic questions – and give good answers! Give them a tractor ride. Let them bottle-feed an orphan calf. Feed them a home-cooked lunch. Explain a bit about your economic situation, about “land-rich and cash-poor.” And never, ever, pressure them about what they will ultimately write. Journalists get “spun” all the time, and most are sick of it.

In the mean time, continue to do your best to educate the “99 percenters” whenever you have the opportunity. Remember, we are very few, and the best intentions of the very many can easily put us out of business. And then none of us would have anything to eat.

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