October 4, 2009

Critical Theory and Bias

It’s happened again!

I picked up a copy of Media Bias: Finding It, Fixing It only to discover that I have been referred to without my prior knowledge. Not by name this time but a reference to my media bias page on Rhetorica.

I found this part from the introduction amusing (emphasis added):

On the other extreme, there are critics who claim that everything about the media is biased. This claim comes most commonly from people with a “critical theory” perspective. They argue that, for example, the capitalistic structure of America media imparts to them an inherent bias. The problem with the argument, though, is that it also is made from its own bias.

Well, yes. And thanks for proving the point 🙂

There is no argument you can make about anything that isn’t made from some set of biases.

I should offer an X-prize for the person who can give me an example of some bit of human communication free of bias of all kinds.

The editors continue:

The discussion of media bias on the “Rhetorica” Web site … illustrates the problem. It attempts to explain the variety of reasons that the media are biased and declares that, in fact, all communication is biased. The author includes a list of many types of media bias and how we can judge that bias. While some readers might accept the analysis, just as many would probably conclude that it is itself biased.

I would add: I would hope the people who accept my analysis would also conclude that it’s biased for the primary reason that it is human communication. And there are certainly secondary reasons, too. Of course it’s biased!

They continue to make this reading error (or are they constructing a strawman?):

The problem with the analysis is that, after stating that all communication is biased, it presents the author’s own analysis as being correct — that is, unbiased or objective….

I do not claim correctness. I claim “a better understanding.” Big difference. I see the problem: These editors think bias is a bad thing. They’ve apparently accepted a pejorative connotation of the term, or, perhaps, they are so focused on political bias that they do not see that it is, as I claim, not very important in understanding what journalists do and why they do it. Before writing this book, they should have done some investigating in the discipline of psychology. They would have learned, among other things, that bias simply is. It’s neither good nor bad. Here’s what I say in my chapter on bias in 21st Century Communications:

The problem with bias is not that it exists, nor is it that bias somehow pollutes an otherwise pure message. The problem with bias is that it may distort a message sold to an audience as “objective.” What happens when the form of the message persuades us that the information is truthful yet the bias of the speaker distorts the truth?

The problem bias can cause has little to do with just the various kinds of surface biases operating in a given message. Problems arise when communicators attempt to claim certain types of messages as unbiased when the form of the messages themselves (e.g. journalism) cannot be understood outside a consideration of the biases that structure the form.

Political bias is not a structuring form of journalism. It is a potential surface bias.

Am I biased? Of course. What could I possibly write in this space right now that wouldn’t be biased? To say that human communication is biased is to make no claim whatsoever about the quality of any particular message.

Political bias in journalism can be a very real problem (and not because there’s anything wrong with political bias per se; there isn’t). Ditto a lot of other biases, e.g. hindsight bias. I contend that understanding these kinds of biases (political, psychological, social, economic, etc.)  are difficult without an examination of the biases that structure the particular discourse in the first place.

This I believe: You cannot come to a conclusion about the goodness or badness of a particular bias in a message without first considering the biases that structure of the form of the message.

The problem these editors are having with this idea is printed in big letters right on the cover of the book: Media Bias: Find It, Fixing It. Most of us know how to do the former. But the latter? You might as well try “fixing” the human cognitive and psychological systems.

One Response

  1. max1k 

    my personal favorite journalism bias is still the sensational. when was the last time a newspaper ran a story “There was no robbery on Main Street last night. Police Spokesperson John Smith had no idea why we were even asking about the non-event. Witnesses reported nothing out of the ordinary.”?