Media Bubbles, Groupthink, and Intolerance

Journalists can break out of their bubbles by respecting those they report on
May 4, 2017 3:36 pm Last Updated: May 4, 2017 3:36 pm

To their credit, journalists have been trying to understand the train wreck that happened early on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. I refer, of course, to how favored media narratives and predictions went badly off the rails when Donald J. Trump won the presidency.

According to the Politico article “The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think,” the election made clear that “the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers.” Journalists Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty argue that the media’s disconnect is due to groupthink, and the groupthink is due to where journalists work.

They found that by 2016 over half of news jobs were in counties that Hillary Clinton carried by more than 30 points. Seventy-two percent were in counties Clinton won.

In other words, journalists are concentrated in bubbles in Clinton electoral strongholds, which are in major urban centers and along the coasts.

This concentration is increasing rapidly, as journalism jobs shift from print to online. In January 2006, nearly 365,000 people worked in print newspaper jobs and more than 69,000 worked in internet publishing and broadcasting.

By January 2017, the internet jobs had increased to about 207,000 and the print jobs had decreased to about 174,000.

These new internet jobs are mostly landing in blue territory on the electoral map: 90 percent are in counties Clinton carried, and 75 percent in counties she won by more than 30 percent.

The Power of Place

Shafer and Doherty see these blue bubbles as significant for how the news is reported. “The people who report, edit, produce, and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them,” they wrote.

They use an article written in 2004 by then-New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent as a testimony to the power that a particular place has over journalists.

“Today, only 50 percent of the Times’s readership resides in metropolitan New York, but the paper’s heart, mind, and habits remain embedded here,” wrote Okrent, in a discussion of how the Times is a liberal newspaper that reflects its cosmopolitan home.

Shafer and Doherty claim that “something akin to the Times ethos can be found in most major national newsrooms on the Clinton coasts.”

Tim Groseclose, author of “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind,” sees the Politico article as demonstrating that the problem of media bias has been getting worse, not better, contrary to his expectation when he published his book in 2011.

Groseclose is skeptical of Politico’s claim that online journalists are being made liberal by where they live, believing the causality may work to a great degree the other way. Because the internet frees a blogger to work anywhere, a liberal blogger can move out of the heartland to a Clinton bubble. The blogger brings liberal attitudes to the job, rather than acquiring them there.

A further complication with the Politico article involves the conservative outlets Fox News and Breitbart News. They are located in the deep blue bubbles, respectively, of Manhattan and Washington, yet they have resisted becoming liberal.

While Politico’s explanation from geography adds a new, important element to our understanding of media bias, we have to go beyond geography to understand why the media tilts to the left.

Groupthink

Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of the stats website FiveThirtyEight, wrote a series of nine articles analyzing why the press had gotten the presidential election wrong. The last of these concerns groupthink.

Silver points out that journalists, pollsters, consultants, and others who work in politics are not a very diverse group, and they tend to give a lot of credit to the views of other experts.

“Once a consensus view is established,” Silver wrote, “it tends to reinforce itself until and unless there’s very compelling evidence for the contrary position.” Social media can amplify the groupthink, becoming an echo chamber.

An Indiana University study found that in 2013 only 7.1 percent of journalists identified themselves as Republican, down from 18 percent in 2002. This lack of political diversity makes groupthink more likely, with the dominant narratives reflecting the liberal makeup of the newsroom.

Groseclose believes self-selection helps lead to unbalanced newsrooms, as conservatives are less likely to want to be journalists. At the National Journalism Center, a program meant to encourage young conservatives to become journalists, half the students told Groseclose they would not go into journalism.

With conservatives less likely to enter the profession, those that do will find newsrooms in which they may feel out of place or unwelcome, making them less likely to remain. And some are blackballed by management because of their conservative views, Groseclose says.

Silver finds that a lack of independent thinking is another cause of groupthink.

We all tend to be susceptible to how others view things. Journalists, who must quickly understand complex issues, may find an emerging consensus useful for telling the day’s story, and so the job of the reporter may naturally encourage a pack mentality.

Confirmation Bias and Complicity

Groupthink easily leads to confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret a new situation in light of pre-existing beliefs. This tendency bedeviled the coverage of the presidential campaign, as reporters who were convinced Clinton would win interpreted events to suit their beliefs.

“The reporting was much more certain of Clinton’s chances than it should have been based on the polls,” Silver wrote, with much of the New York Times coverage having a near 100 percent certainty of a Clinton victory.

Conservative critics often see the media as going beyond the wishful thinking of confirmation bias to complicity—shaping reporting to deliver a desired outcome. It is not for nothing that during Bill Clinton’s presidency, CNN came to be called the “Clinton News Network.”

A recent story that set conservative alarm bells ringing was the coverage of allegations that Susan Rice, while serving as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, had directed the unmasking of the identities of Trump campaign and transition staff that had been caught up in NSA surveillance.

This blockbuster story raises the possibility that the U.S. security apparatus had been turned against U.S. citizens for political purposes. When the story broke, NBC and ABC did not report it. CNN anchor Don Lemon stated his network chose not to cover it, as it was a distraction from covering allegations that Trump or his associates had colluded with the Russians to deny Clinton the election.

Intolerance

Complicity often involves media outlets hiding their biases in order to manipulate their audience.

I find preferable the stance taken by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow early on the morning of Nov. 9, as a Trump victory was starting to seem likely. She turned to the camera and said: “You’re awake, by the way. You’re not having a terrible, terrible dream. Also, you’re not dead, and you haven’t gone to hell.”

No viewer could mistake the attitude Maddow brought to reporting the election. But Maddow’s honesty also reveals a deep intolerance for the views of half the country.

As events on our college campuses remind us daily, we live during a time of increasing intolerance, where conservative views are shouted down by an aggressive left.

This spirit of intolerance may appear most strongly in blue enclaves like Berkeley, but it has its own genealogy; it is not simply a product of particular places.

The arrogance of treating as unacceptable the beliefs of large parts of the population separated journalists in 2016 from understanding the Trump phenomenon, leading to confirmation bias and misreporting, and perhaps to complicity and a disguised political advocacy.

To break out of this bubble, journalists need to recover a respect for their fellow citizens that transcends any particular set of political beliefs, and, with that respect, a humility about their own role.

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