Press bias and multiple sources

| July 12, 2006

FURTHER UPDATE (7/14/06):

This could explain a lot.

UPDATE (7/13/06):

Having written this post yesterday, I ran across these three pieces today:

And now back to my original posting:

Growing up in San Diego in the 1960s, I had three main sources of news: Time (which our family subscribed to), The San Diego Union newspaper, and the CBS Evening News. While the SD Union had a conservative editorial policy, the actual news coverage tended to be pretty much in line with Time and CBS.

In 1971, I turned 18, registered as a Democrat, graduated from high school, and went off to college. Upon arriving at college, I — like most new and returning students — was innundated with various marketing materials and offers. Among them were special 9-month subscription rates for what were then and still are the three big weekly news magazines: Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report. Rather than simply continue with Time, I decided to subscribe to and read all three in order to figure out which I would read as the adult I now felt myself to be.

This was, as they say, an eye-opening experience. It was fascinating to see how differently these three periodicals could portray a given issue or news item. Likewise, it was fascinating to see what they chose to cover and what they chose to ignore and how that itself was a form of press bias. And on the rare occasion where they covered a topic that I actually knew something about (e.g., the LDS Church), I was amazed at just how wrong they could get things.

My conclusion at the end of the school year was that US News & World Report was the most balanced of the three magazines. It was, sadly, also the most dull, which provided another insight: bias sells, not necessarily because of the actual bias involved, but because it allows the reporter to make the story interesting rather than merely factual and even-handed. And, of course, many reporters and editors see their jobs as changing the world for the better, according to their philosophical and political views.

The obvious solution to all this is to have multiple sources of information, particularly sources that don’t necessarily share the same worldview or agenda. For example, during the nearly 8 years that Sandra and I lived in the Washington DC area, I subscribed to both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and I read both early each morning. However, when we moved to Parker, Colorado a year ago, that changed. The local newspapers just aren’t as good as the Washington Post, and I could only get the Wall Street Journal delivered via U.S. Mail, which meant that it came late in the afternoon if it came at all. So when my WSJ subscription came up for renewal, I let it lapse.

Instead, I now have somewhere around 140 websites that I scan at least once a day, some of which are listed in the blogroll on the left side of this screen. Major categories include blogs, news (including web sites for eight different newspapers), science, entertainment, and “weird stuff”. The blogs are divided into categories that include technology, military/intelligence, politics, foreign blogs, and “odd blogs”, as well as two sets of general blogs, one set which I review once a day, and the other set that I review several times a day. Likewise, there’s a subset of news websites that I review several times a day.

I miss having the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal at my door by 5:30 am or so each morning; browsing websites is not as effecient or informative as simply paging through a well-done newspaper. But even that 8- to 10-hour delay in getting the WSJ made it largely redundant; by the time it came in the afternoon mail, I already knew about most of the major news items it reported. And I find that I watch much less cable news than I did even back in DC.

What I most appreciate about getting information from the web is its self-correcting nature. For every news story reported, there are numerous bloggers and commentators who are willing to fact- and logic-check the story itself. They, in turn, may find themselves fact- and logic-checked, and so on. (I myself got briefly involved in the “Rathergate” issue over the alleged Bush National Guard documents.) It calls to mind a statement made by Joseph Smith: “By proving [i.e., testing] contraries, truth is made manifest.” The web is as fine an example of that as I know. ..bruce..

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Category: Commentary, Main

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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