The website Real Clear Science did something remarkable this week: It disclosed the political biases of its regular contributors. The effort did not involve self-identification. Instead, each contributor took a “political quiz,” and the site posted the results.
What’s interesting about the disclosure isn’t where the biases lie. (Unsurprisingly for a tech site, the contributors skew libertarian.) What’s interesting is that the editors felt a need to come up with a creative response to the growing perception that news and analysis are always slanted. Public trust in the news media is in free fall. We’ve reached the point where hardly anybody expects unbiased coverage.
In Gallup’s annual surveys, for example, the percentage of respondents who say that they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in either newspapers or television news lingers near record lows. A May 2015 Rasmussen survey found that 61 percent of respondents did not trust reporting on politics, a jump of 16 points from October. Only 23 percent expected unbiased coverage of the 2016 presidential race, with 36 percent predicting bias in favor of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and 23 percent predicting bias against her.
People don’t just believe the news media are biased. They think the bias is intentional. According to the 2015 edition of the “State of the First Amendment Survey,” released this month by the Newseum Institute, only 24 percent of respondents think journalists even “try to report news without bias” — the lowest figure in the 11 years the survey has been asking the question. Among young people, suspicion is even greater. In the Newseum study, only 7 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agreed that the media try to report without bias.
Do journalists really slant their coverage? Certainly we’ve come a long way since the 19th century, when newspapers made little pretense that their mission was anything other than the representation of particular political interests. But bias is a difficult element to quantify, and scholars who study the issue come down on both sides.
To the extent that bias does exist, it’s in large part a market phenomenon. News consumption patterns mirror political preferences. Liberals gravitate toward news sources thought to have a liberal bias, and conservatives toward sources thought to have a conservative bias. Partisans seek an echo chamber, a place to have their view not challenged but reinforced.
This isn’t just a matter of who prefers MSNBC and who prefers Fox News Channel. Natalie Jomini Stroud of the University of Texas at Austin, in her illuminating 2011 book Niche News: The Politics of News Choice, relates an experiment in which subjects (unaware that they were being observed) were left in a waiting room with a selection of reading matter. Predictably, when political magazines were available, the subjects chose to browse those that matched their predilections. What’s more intriguing is that as more choices were made available, the likelihood that a subject would select a magazine for a nonpolitical reason actually declined. The greater the cacophony of voices, the greater our desire to hear only those that agree with us.
This result should worry those who believe in deliberative democracy and an informed electorate. Yet, as with many worrisome diseases, potential treatments may be just over the horizon. In a more recent study, Stroud together with two co- authors tested social media preferences by giving readers of online comment threads about news articles the opportunity to click on a “respect” button rather than a “like” button. Subjects were presented with a story likely to spark ideological passion. (One article was on Michigan’s right-to-work law, the other about a lesbian who voted Republican.) They were then asked to read the posted comments, which had been edited to divide evenly between left-leaning and right- leaning opinions. One-third of the subjects had the option to click a “like” button, and one-third had the option to click a “respect” button. The experiment found that the presence of the “respect” button significantly increased cross-partisan clicking.
The findings are consistent with other work suggesting that small cues can lead to large differences in how people consume content. The authors note: “The ‘Like’ button does not directly mention partisanship. It may, however, serve a similar function by encouraging site visitors to think in terms of agreeing or disagreeing with an issue, or accepting or rejecting arguments based on their political views.”
In this sense, the risk of the “like” button is that it frames the question for the reader too narrowly. This is particularly true when, as on Facebook, our friends know what we like and dislike. Conformity bias is bound to influence our decisions.
The “respect” button, however, cues the possibility that a reader might see the virtue in an argument without expressing agreement, and allows the reader to signal this nuanced position. With a single click, we can let others know that there are arguments that might be intriguing and worth perusing even if in the end they fail to persuade. In a democracy, that’s not a bad signal to send.
Maybe you find the “respect” button too gimmicky. Maybe you find Real Clear Science’s posting of its contributors’ political test results too gimmicky. But unless you have a better gimmick, maybe these are worth a try.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.