A new Pew study concluded, as we approach the midterm elections, that most “partisans remain sharply divided in their attitudes about the news media. While most Americans expect news to be accurate, most also say news organizations “cover up mistakes, take sides.” This study brings to light an age-old paradox as to the perception of “biased media coverage.” The paradox is perplexing and was validated in countless studies: most conservatives feel that the news media has a “liberal bias” and most liberals feel exactly the opposite, that news media coverage is “tilting towards conservatism.”
There are several factors that influence the discussion about media bias:
The first comes from the realm of psychology. Humans tend to reject information that contradicts their basic beliefs. People do not turn to mass media to routinely shape new opinions. On the contrary, most people turn to mass media to reinforce their pre-existing convictions. Psychologists refer to it as cognitive dissonance: evidence that clashes with our pre-existing beliefs is usually rejected by us. Two individuals can be exposed to the very same message or argument, yet each would draw an entirely different conclusion. Humans process information through a highly personal and uniquely individual filter.
Second, is the question of media influence. Scientists are still trying to figure out the question of how and where “media effect” happens. While there are several significantly different views on the subject, most researchers would agree on one thing: media influence is not linear.
The very exposure to a message, fact, evidence, or opinion is insufficient to bring about a full conversion of opinion. Studies conducted as early as the 1940’s indicated that “voters who consumed the most media had generally already decided for which candidate to vote.” As a public diplomacy practitioner, who dealt with media for much of his career, I tend to agree with the proponents of the ‘agenda-setting theory’: the main media effect is its ability to set the agenda. Per this theory, the media cannot dictate “what to think” but rather “about what to think.”
Third, is the self-designed news feed which is the true game-changing development in the field of news media. Even the ‘agenda-setting’ theory, arguably the most-valid media effect theory out there, is being challenged by the new media experience. Our self-designed news feed guarantees one thing: humans digitally congregate with other like-minded media consumers. Thus, the news media generates a never-ending set of circular niche conversations attended by very similar information consumers. Ultimately, we are all preaching to our own choirs.
Fourth, is the massive proliferation and decentralization of news media outlets. As traditional main stream media is losing its grip on the monopoly to set the public’s agenda, new outlets are emerging. They are more specific, at times esoteric, and their attraction is not based on quantitative measures (ratings, for example) but rather on qualitative metrics (that measure the quality of engagement as well as its intensity, frequency, etc.)
Whether we like it or not, the perception of media coverage will continue to be determined by the complexity of our mental world. Humans will continue to seek consistency in their mental world, regardless of the quality, intensity, or frequency of the message they have been exposed to. The old saying referring to “people who do not wish to be confused with facts” is more accurate than ever.
Ambassador Ido Aharoni serves as a global distinguished professor at New York University’s School of International Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Ambassador Aharoni is a 25-year veteran of Israel’s Foreign service, a public diplomacy specialist, founder of the Brand Israel program and a well-known nation branding practitioner. He is the founder of Emerson Rigby Ltd., an Israel-based consultancy firm specializing in non-product branding and positioning. Ambassador Aharoni, who served as Israel's longest serving consul-general in New York and the tristate area for six years, oversaw the operations of Israel’s largest diplomatic mission worldwide. Ambassador Aharoni joined Israel’s Foreign Service in the summer of 1991 and held two other overseas positions in Los Angeles (1994-1998) and in New York (2001-2005). He is a graduate of Tel Aviv University (Film, TV, Sociology and Social Anthropology) and Emerson College (Master’s in Mass Communications and Media Studies). At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem he attended the special Foreign Service program in Government and Diplomacy. To reach more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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