Why Increased Choice = Increasing Biased Reporting
I had always thought it paradoxical that even as the Internet makes it possible to disseminate the truth more widely, we seem to have entered an increasingly strident and partisan age of biased reporting.
Now I see that this increase in bias is a natural consequence of increased choice.
The most recent Harvard Magazine has a brief article on the work of two economics professors, Andrei Shleifer and Sendhil Mullainathan. In it, Mullainathan uses an analogy so perfect and convincing that I will simply quote it in its entirety:
Mullainathan draws the analogy of a long beach occupied by swimmers
enjoying the sun. An ice-cream vendor arrives. If all the swimmers are at one
end of the beach, the vendor would set up the stand there. But if customers are
spread out along the entire beach, the single vendor should locate in the middle
of the beach to offer easy access to the most customers.
“Think of that beach as the political spectrum,” Mullainathan says. “If
there is one seller, you locate in the middle—just as a monopoly newspaper will
locate itself in the center of the political spectrum to draw the most readers.
But if a second seller sets up in the center, the two newspapers will just be
competing on price. So instead they segment the market, with one paper going to
the right-hand side of the beach, the other to the left.” One paper might even
go to the extreme right end of the beach, where it can charge a higher price to
readers who don’t want to make the long walk to the left. “As two firms move
farther out from the center,” Mullainathan says, “they insinuate themselves more
with their customers.” In just this way, the researchers write, “Newspapers
locate themselves in the product space through their reporting strategies (i.e.,
how they slant).” Bias is not a product defect, but a feature.
Their conclusion? If you want to overcome your own innate biases, you need to seek out a heterogenous array of news sources. In other words, just reading Daily Kos or watching Fox News ain’t going to cut it.