DSK and media bias

Larry Ribstein —  5 July 2011

Bret Stephens wonders why he and fellow journalists ignored the fact that “[a]lmost from the beginning, there was something amiss in the case of People v. Dominique Strauss-Kahn.” He speculates:

I did enjoy the thought of this mandarin of the tax-exemptocracy being pulled from the comfort of his first-class Air France seat and dispatched to Riker’s Island without regard to status or dignity. And I admired the humble immigrant who would risk so much for the sake of justice. And I smiled at the spectacle of France’s Socialists finding their would-be savior exposed by American prosecutors when they had been hypocritically observing a code of silence about his habits. And I liked seeing the IMF red-faced for whitewashing DSK’s previous escapades.

* * *

He adds that

this is as good an opportunity as any to ask where else we might be committing similar blunders. The climate change obsession, with its Manichean concept of polluting corporations versus noble eco-warriors? The Wall Street obsession, with its belief the boardroom boys were criminally guilty of the financial crisis? The China obsession, with its view that the Middle Kingdom is destined to overtake the U.S. in global economic and political clout? The Israel obsession, with its notion that if only Jewish settlements were removed from the West Bank peace would break out throughout the Middle East?

In each of these cases, the media (broadly speaking) has too often been guilty of looking only for the evidence that fits a pre-existing story line. * * *

But anecdotes are not data—which happens to be the world’s most easily neglected truism. Also true is that sloppy moral categories like the powerful and the powerless, or the selfish and the altruistic, are often misleading and susceptible to manipulation. And the journalists who most deserve to earn their keep are those who understand that the line of any story is likely to be crooked.

I discussed these issues five years ago in my Public Face of Scholarship. I found a rich economics literature analyzing media bias:

  • Michael Jensen observed that people “want sensationalist stories that present choices between good and evil and simple solutions rather than complex explanations.”
  • Core, Guay and Larcker studied the journalist coverage of executive compensation, noting that the press emphasizes sensationalism rather than realistic analysis of the extent of excessive compensation.
  • Gregory S. Miller, The Press as a Watchdog for Accounting Fraud, 44 J. ACCT. RES. 1001 (2006) found that the press emphasized sensationalist elements in stories about accounting fraud.
  • Gentzkow & Shapiro, Media Bias and Reputation, 114 J. POL. ECON. 280 (2006) argue that the news media seek to confirm what the audience thinks it already knows rather than risk being rejected. 
  • Mullainathan & Shleifer conclude that journalists feed audience biases.
  • David Baron reverses causation, arguing that media bias originates with left-leaning anti-market journalists rather than with an effort to serve the audience.

I discussed these theories by way of arguing that bloggers can help correct these tendencies.  That may have happened in this case, but being biased in favor of the accepted wisdom here I didn’t follow any bloggers who might have caught on. 

All of this shows that media and audience bias can be very sticky, and we need a lot of different information sources to combat it.  In other words, free speech is important.  This includes not only bloggers, but for-profit corporate speech, which can cut against some of the biases Stephens referred to.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

4 responses to DSK and media bias

  1. 
    Walter Sobchak 6 July 2011 at 9:14 pm

    “DSK and the death of the novel” by Spengler
    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/MG06Dj02.html

    Who needs fiction anymore?

  2. 

    Um, the guy left valuable items in his hotel room, left without checking out and was on a jetliner claiming a nonexistant diplomatic immunity. Now I’m just a retired deputy from a rural county and haven’t had much truck with rich socialists. And I’ve never been on the same block as a three thousand dollar a night hotel suite. Still, DSK sure did act guilty.

    I suspect that the accuser is a liar, the union is a bunch of pimps meme will quietly slip below the waves and various people will become moderately wealthy. And DSK will be France’ newest hero, become President and then, a few years from now we’ll be seeing stories about the mysterious rash of dead female bodies cropping up around France.

  3. 

    By “for profit corporate speech” I was referring to the issues on corporate speech generally discussed in my linked article on that case, not to the press specifically. (My links are intended to elaborate on and explain the posts.) With respect to evidence law (which I’ve also taught), the issue is the weakness of the case under current law, not whether this law (including on evidence admissibility) should be changed.

  4. 
    Tamara Piety 5 July 2011 at 5:15 am

    L – What do you mean by “for profit corporate speech” and what evidence is there that it would cut against the phenomenon you describe? If I understand you correctly you assert that the press is slanted toward sensationalism (which, it is worth noting, is not the same thing as a left or right bias), in other words, towards what sells newspapers. Why should for-profit corporate speech (although not clear what you mean by this distinct from the press) not similarly cater to what sells? In any event, the popularity of the sensational seems to me only one of several reasons to doubt that old chestnut – that the unfettered market can be trusted to produce truth – has any empirical basis. Lots of things are popular (i.e. people will pay for them) which are not true-astrology comes to mind. I should think it would be the nonprofit sector, the bloggers you mention, public radio, the Columbia Journalism Review and others that one might hope would offer balance because they are not motivated by sales. Alas, I think if you define “sales” broadly enough to encompass influence, prominence, persuasion, etc. there isn’t a lot of reason to just expect mostly a cacophony of competing sensationalisms and conspiracy narratives either way. As someone who teaches Evidence I must say that I don’t find much of significance in the revelations about the complaining witness since I think the evidence has shown that the assumption that lying in one context says much about the probability of lying in a completely different one. Alas, I do understand why prosecutors would despair of getting a conviction under these circumstances since we still require victims of sexual assault to have well nigh spotless pasts in order to be able to serve as effective witnesses. It is why it is so difficult to prosecute someone who rapes prostitutes. Doesn’t mean they weren’t raped. Similarly here the complainant’s past false statements don’t mean this one was false.