In talking about the media and politics, two questions come up all the time. Is the media biased? If so, is the bias influential, does it change the way people think? The November 1 issue of The Economist, to which I cannot link, reported on some recent economic research that bears on these questions.
If you start from the assumption that readers and listeners like to have their beliefs confirmed, as two economists did, you end up with the conclusion that the media slant their reporting right and left in order to increase market share. Two other economists, according to The Economist, have recently added evidence to support this conclusion. They measured political slant by indexing key phrases (“estate tax” vs “death tax”) used in Congressional debates and their frequency in the media and correlated this with readership bias as determined by voting patterns in media markets and contributions to Democratic or Republican organizations.
The economists concluded that “newspapers tended, on average, to locate themselves neither to the right nor to the left of the level of slant that [the economists] reckon would maximise their profits. And for good commercial reasons: their model showed that even a minor deviation from this “ideal” level of slant would hurt profits through a sizeable loss of circulation.”
This economic analysis adds to the evidence that, stated simply, the media does not influence public opinion as much as it reacts to it (to make money) and that public opinion or at least the terms of our political discourse are set by opinion makers, in this case, congressmen and senators.