January 13, 2009

The Yummy Donut of Status Quo Bias

Jay Rosen is back in the saddle at Press Think. And he’s returned with a bang. His essay posted yesterday deals in part with the status quo bias of journalism (although he does not use that term). Following an explanation of David Hallin’s diagram of the Spheres of Consensus, Controversy, and Deviance, Rosen says:

Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.

Rosen is examining the role of interactive technology in overcoming “audience atomization.” Which is very cool. I’m going to use what he wrote to veer off in another direction.

The status quo bias of journalism:

The news media believe “the system works.” During the “fiasco in Florida,” recall that the news media were compelled to remind us that the Constitution was safe, the process was working, and all would be well. The mainstream news media never question the structure of the political system. The American way is the only way, politically and socially. In fact, the American way is news. The press spends vast amounts of time in unquestioning coverage of the process of political campaigns (but less so on the process of governance). This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored.

The press ignores other things that intersect in interesting ways with the the status quo bias. For example, I recently discussed Dick Cheney’s odd justification for telling a U.S. Senator to go fuck himself. Tim Schmoyer, of Jig’s Old Saws, and I had a brief discussion in the comments about what constitutes news because, really — is one politician cussing at another news? Another way to put it: Is this something journalists should see or see in a particular way? I replied in part:

How it happens is particularly interesting considering that there are no cogent definitions of “news.” What is going on in the herd mind? Gans got a glimpse of it in his book Deciding What’s News. What he saw was a particular culture that is effective in socializing its members. But a definition remains elusive. That’s a problem because you and I might decide a thing is not news, but if the news media cover it then it must be news. And if you complain, well, you’ll be told you don’t know what news is.

That donut diagram is, as Rosen claims, particularly illustrative of journalistic behavior. I think it is especially illustrative regarding the status quo bias and what that bias says news is and is not. What I find interesting is that the lack of a cogent definition of news plays a big role in status quo bias and the Hallin diagram.

I’m not suggesting a cogent definition of news exists or that we must stop what we’re doing and find/create one now. Reason: Not possible, i.e. we cannot agree on a definition that looks the same to all of us equally. In other words, what news is is a judgment call made by people with the power to do so. These people appear to be partly unaware of their decision-making process, of their terministic screens, their structural biases, their professional culture, and their received cultural values. Most of us are not aware of these things most of the time. But I contend that a journalist can’t have that luxury because of that all-important primary purpose.

What can/should be done about this? (Defining the “this” and why it’s bad (if it is) isn’t easy considering what we’re talking about here is human beings acting and communicating in the ways that human beings do. There is no ground-state, unbiased communication from a person in contact with some objective reality to a person able to understand that reality as experienced and the message as intended. The epistemology of journalism, however, argues that this is exactly what can/does happen.)

I like the word “transparency” to identify what I think the “solution” is. And I have promoted the idea of practicing “meta-reporting” as a way to be transparent. But Tim Schmoyer gave me a much better description — simple and cogent: “show your work” journalism.

We all remember that phrase from math classes in elementary school. Getting the right answer was only part of the task. Showing your work demonstrated that you understood how you arrived at an answer (correct or otherwise). The quality of understanding we’re talking about in journalism, however, is a bit different. In math we want to show we understand the underlying concepts of a rational process. Certainly we want to understand underlying concepts in the news we cover (as irrational as it often is). Journalism, however, must also show that it understands the subjective — the post-modern condition — i.e. that not all of us experience the world in the same way.

How do we accomplish this?

Good question. I do not have a good answer yet.

But here’s something I think I do know: Meta-reporting cannot be practiced well using the news discourse of the last 100 years, mired as it is in a failed and false modernist epistemology.

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4 Responses

  1. Tim 

    I’m speechless. Awed by such a thoughtful post and seeing my name mentioned … twice!

    Talk about audience atomization overcome!

    Thanks, Andy.

  2. acline 

    Tim… Rhetorica aims to please :-)

  3. Comment originally left on Facebook, revised for readability:

    Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education uses a nearly identical diagram for her field, with the parts labeled analogously (something like Consensus Science, Controversial Science, and Fringe Science). Certainly the supporters of science would say that “the system works” although, and I use the expression advisedly, God knows the scientific method isn’t much like the processes of American government.

    I would characterize “status quo bias” as “existing-institutions bias.” Most American media are dramatically unlikely to endorse the idea that entire bureaucratic structures, or conventional political notions, ought to be done away with or replaced by something new (the original for this being “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”). They are not even likely to endorse disregard for existing institutions and prevailing attitudes.

    My impression is of at-most-mildly-critical coverage of bailouts potentially adding up to trillions of dollars, plus offhand speculation about some kind of rerun of the New Deal*. Not exactly out-of-the-box thinking, given both the right to revolution, as described ca. 1776, and the ubiquitous tools of mass collaboration, as available ca. 2009. There is plenty of irony to go around here.

    Note that my intent is not to loose mere nihilism upon the world. A sphere of consensus is almost certainly both inevitable and necessary if any large number of human beings is to effectively manage risk (the original for that being “to secure these [unalienable] rights”). I like your transparency idea, a lot. But I would also like more journalists to internalize Jefferson.

    * How strong was existing-institutions bias in the 1930s?

  4. Tim 

    Actually, it is interesting (to me) to look through the archives of Time magazine to answer such questions:

    New Deal: World Phase
    The New Deal Falls Sick
    F.D.R.’s Disputed Legacy