Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Monday, April 01, 2002

I started reading The Tipping Point, the well known book by Malcolm Gladwell about the epidemic nature of ideas, and some interesting misconceptions people have about the sources of our ideas and emotions. The overall concept is not new, I don't think, but the examples are very interesting (the Paul Revere/William Dawes example is perhaps the best illustration). Since many of my readers have probably read this book, I won't review it or anything, but I will share an anecdote that is illustrative on our ongoing "liberal media bias" discussion. A study was done (I will check the source tonight at home) on the facial expressions of the various news anchors when reporting on the 1984 and 1988 elections (the anchors, then as now, were Rather, Brokaw and Jennings, at least for this study). Clips of the anchors discussing the candidates (Reagan/Mondale, Bush/Dukakis) were edited down to 2.5 seconds of footage, with the sound taken out, and the clip chosen and edited so the observer could not identify what the anchor was talking about. These clips, along with control footage on unrelated topics, were shown to volunteers (I don't know the sample size), who were asked to score the facial expressions of the anchors. I will leave out the numerical scores, because I don't remember exactly what they were, but the upshot was that Rather and Brokaw scored essentially neutral on either candidate, but Jennings did not. Surprisingly, his face lit up (I paraphrase) when he talked about the Republican candidate! This was true in both cases, so it wasn't just that he liked Reagan. This is surprising, because my understanding from the blogosphere is that he is held to be the most liberal of the liberal biased anchors (I could be mistaken here, though). Even more interestingly, the consensus is that ABC was the least favorable to the Republicans in those elections, in terms of general coverage. The voting tally, however (I'm not sure how they got this result), was that ABC viewers favored the Republican candidate by a wide margin, while the other two networks viewers reflected the national average. I found this fascinating, both as an indicator of the media bias fallacy (that is, we tend only to be interested in bias we detect as against us), and as a demonstration of the power of subtle, almost certainly unconscious cues. Something to think about, perhaps. Needless to say, I recommend the book heartily(I may be the last person on earth to notice it, though).