Friday, September 18, 2015

A natural experiment in journalistic objectivity (or at least a chance to draw a sharp comparison)

Discussions of objectivity in the mainstream (as opposed to partisan) press generally focus on the ideological and start with the assumption of a liberal bias. This assumption is usually backed by various studies of journalists' party affiliations and op-ed positions. As statisticians, our natural impulse at this point is to start examining these studies and trying to determine their validity, but while that might make for an interesting classroom conversation, it would miss the real question.

There's a big difference between holding a position and showing bias against those with different positions. Not only can we not assume that people in group A discriminate against not-A, it can often break the other way.  For instance, perceived biases can be over-corrected for. This is particularly true in fields like political reporting where the stakes are high and there's a serious potential for push-back. Another possibility is that the acknowledged factor correlates with another factor where the bias runs the other way. For example, the New York Times is, by many metrics, a liberal paper, but it tends to identify strongly with the one-percent, which can sometimes produce a de facto liberal bias

This week's GOP debate has given us an excellent opportunity to test some of the assumptions about the way the press does or doesn't favor liberals over conservatives.

From Talking Points Memo:
Carly Fiorina on Thursday morning defended claims she made during the CNN Republican presidential debate that the Planned Parenthood sting videos showed a kicking fetus as employees discussed harvesting its organs. However, reports indicate that the videos recently released by the anti-abortion group The Center for Medical Progress did not include the scene Fiorina described.

During the debate, Fiorina told her Democratic opponents to look at the videos and "watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

During a Thursday morning interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," host George Stephanopoulos asked Fiorina if she incorrectly characterized the videos.

"Analysts who have watched all 12 plus hours say the scene you describe - that harrowing scene you described -- actually isn't in those tapes. Did you misspeak?" he asked.

"No, I didn't misspeak, and I don't know who you're speaking about in terms of watching the tapes, but I have seen those images," Fiorina responded. "I don't know whether you've watched the tapes, George. Most people haven't. Certainly none of the Democrats who are still defending Planned Parenthood have watched those tapes."

Stephanopoulos then referenced a report by Vox's Sarah Kliff, who said that she watched all of the videos released and that she did not see the scene Fiorina described.
Here's the operative quote from Kliff's piece.

Either Fiorina hasn't watched the Planned Parenthood videos or she is knowingly misrepresenting the footage. Because what she says happens in the Planned Parenthood videos simply does not exist.

A few years ago, Al Gore received a flood of negative coverage for false statements about his personal and legislative record. (All of these turned out to be the result of misreporting but let's put that aside for the moment.) We know that Gore was generally disliked by the Washington press corps -- Many of the reporters actually commented on this at the time – even though most members were in general agreement with his center-left positions. 

By comparison, Fiorina doesn't seem to have staked out any notably moderate, let alone liberal, positions, even by the current GOP standards. Not on taxes, not on foreign policy and certainly not on abortion. Ideologically, there doesn't appear to be any common ground between those positions and those of the editorial board of a paper like the NYT. In terms of style and personality, however, the paper (and the press in general) has been very friendly to wealthy ex-CEOs.

If the press really does have a strong pro-liberal/anti-conservative bias, we should hear a lot more about Fiorina imagining organ-harvesting than we did about Gore inventing the internet (and more about her campaign financing violations than about Hillary's emails).

Anyone care to wager which way the results will break?

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