6 November 2016

Can we think for once before blaming it on the media?

The fervor of political posts from my FB friend is reaching a crescendo. I guess the election date must be around the corner? 🙂 Sometimes the irony in some of the arguments is very educational to me.

First, this is not a political post in the sense I am not going to suggest any one party/ candidate/ supporters is/are better than the other(s). I will want you to reflect on some of the fallacies of our arguments. This is where thoughtful reflections might help.

The one that has caught my notice lately is the bashing up of media in general.. Fox, MSNBC, NBC and such channels in particular. The core of the argument is the same – their reporting is biased. And therefore wrong and misleading. Regardless of whether you lean left and find Fox to be atrociously biased or you lean right and find MSNBC to be blindingly one-sided, the theme is the same – media is to be blamed for feeding us completely skewed views of events, words or policies.

Now let’s think for a second.

Suppose you are made the CEO of a media house – or you start your own media channel – assume somebody is funding it. What are you trying to achieve? Like it or not, you will realize that your job is no different than every other CEO – you are going to have to run it as a business and make money. That is what our capitalism is all about. I am going to not even get into what happens with media when it is run not with a capitalistic ambition but by (usually) the government. You certainly are aware of many countries where this happens.

But to get back to you being the CEO… you have suddenly realized that your media business needs to stay afloat and survive and grow as a business. So you ask yourself, how does the business make money? Sure, there are the subscriptions (although for the above channels – you can mostly get them free) and syndicated content but it will soon dawn upon you that the money comes from advertisers.

Your next question is how do you attract more advertisers? And then you realize that is all about eyeballs – getting people (like me and my friends) to come and watch your channel. But you also know every single media channel is trying to solve the same problem. That is the second construct of capitalism (the first being making profits) – competition.

Your challenge is very simple. Like every other CEO in every other business. You need to win in a segment of market. You cannot possible win everybody. But you need to deliver a loyal set of audience predictably to the advertisers.

And this is where you show your brilliance – this is why you became the CEO and not other aspirants to the job. You realize that people like hearing what they believe in already. If they believe that moon landing was a hoax, they will absolutely go to conferences that talks about moon landing being an elaborate fraud, they will watch a three hour program on TV late at night where “experts” “prove” that it was indeed a made up story, they will read up materials as long as its supports their belief. All that other data that proves that moon landing was for real – they will do a short shrift of that quickly – wrong data, partial data, conspiracy theories etc. etc.

It is that simple. You want to feed what a particular segment already is prone to believe in anyways and that way you get them to stay with you. You create a “safe” segment – pretty much like gerrymandering and then you keep feeding them the data they want to believe. And you laugh all the way to the bank for your brilliance.

So see, it is not the media that is the root cause of the challenge. It is that we, as human beings, are born with cognitive biases. In general, that is a good thing (else we would not have survived as a race). But we have those biases that get formed somewhat mysteriously and somewhat by our early experiences in life. And they change very very slowly – as we age, the change of beliefs become slower and slower.

As long as we have that cognitive bias (and we always will), we will always be attracted to one kind of news / interpretation and there will always be some channel willing to feed that to us. Some much more strongly than others. Again, just in gerrymandering, if you are in a “safe” red/blue district, you have to try to be redder/bluer than the nest red/blue competitor to stay ahead of the game.

To suddenly sit back and claim that we are all capable of making unbiased decisions – it is just that the media is giving us very biased info is absolutely ironic. And not born from a deep understanding on how we choose sides.

Choosing sides is deep in our limbic part of the brain. That is what we often call as “gut” feeling. Trying to reason out why we believe in something is the task of the cortical part of the brain. Additionally, limbic part of the brain does not have the faculty of language. That is what the cortical part does.

And the cortical part’s way of articulating “reasoning” what the limbic part believes in is to suggest that the side that believes like us are “reasonable” and the other side is “biased”. That makes both side of the brains stay in unison and we do not have to deal with an internal conflict that would gnaw into us.

Next time you find somebody on media saying something you absolutely do not believe in, step back first. Tell yourself that nothing has made you so unique and brilliant among 7 billion humans alive today. You are biased – like everybody else. Once you acknowledge that, maybe it will make hearing the other side of the story a lot more bearable.



Posted November 6, 2016 by Rajib Roy in category "Musings

14 COMMENTS :

  1. By Sridhar Sampath on

    ‘Confirmation Bias’- perhaps you are correct, but this bias also exists with media houses. They dish out opinion after opinion from so called experts that confirm their own bias.

    Reply
  2. By Rajib Roy on

    Agreed. But they do not do that to give themselves confirmation. They do that to give confirmation to those that they need to come back to their channel so they can earn the advertiser’s money. That is what I am trying to explain. I am not suggesting that any opinion dished out by any channel is devoid of bias. That is just not possible.

    Reply
  3. By Mike Schoeffler on

    Nah, it really is the media’s fault. They choose to rile the mob because of preference over profit.

    There’s room for playing it straight. The least biased (on the news pages, anyhow) are the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. It’s no accident they’re also far more profitable than the rest.

    Reply
    1. By Rajib Roy on

      Mike, when one says “least biased”, how is one making the judgment call? Are we all agreed on how that bright middle line looks like? If you accept the premise we are all biased – which we are – how do we even logically conclude what is the “unbiased line” to suggest that something is “least biased”?

      Reply
    2. By Mike Schoeffler on

      Hmm, you pose a deep philosophical question that I’m currently dealing with on a prosaic level for a startup (how to measure body fat percentage when all the methods short of autopsy are incorrect?). What do you trust when two clocks disagree?

      I chose those two newspapers because they’re between Fox and the others, but more for their fastidiousness. They work hard to enforce a line between news and opinion (as opposed to the impossible task of having no opinion). Of course, there are some biases, but since they don’t roll in my favor, I feel free to judge.

      Russian opinion is a fascinating question. Allow me to generalize because I haven’t read the WSJ news section for some time and I’ve never asked a Russian’s opinion.

      At the risk of stereotyping, Russians often fall for the craziest conspiracy theories, possibly because they resemble actual Russian history. But there are objective facts in the world and they look nothing like the Russian view.

      When the Russians say 9/11 was an inside job, AIDS was a CIA plot, or Litvenenko conjured up polonium to poison himself, I say the best policy is to respectfully nod and move on.

      Reply
    3. By Niranjan Thirumale on

      Rajib Roy WSJ opinion pages tilt quite to the right. I would not hold that paper up as an exemplar of neutrality. Same with the Economist (over the years, not just during this campaign).

      Like WSJ, most news pages of major papers have been reporting it straight until recently. It’s in the opinion pages where the lean — to the left or right — is clear.

      Reply
  4. By Seshukumar Tirumala on

    Well written Rajeeb. You hit the nail on the head . I agree with you. I always found that those newspapers I found to be least biased were found extremely biased by some people and wondered why ….

    Reply
  5. By Alexis Parker on

    I truly agree, but do you not think that many people are annoyed because they refuse to recognize media bias or their own? They watch and believe what lines up with their opinions and it only furthers the bias. That annoys me. And.. to be honest…who is reporting anything good about Trump? Even fox has a vendetta

    Reply
  6. By Buck on

    Rajib-

    Such is life today. Folks live in their own echo chambers, and the arrival of the internet has made it increasingly easy to find just that sliver of opinion that exactly matches with one’s own.

    It will take quite some social engineering to wean folks away from this, maybe your post above is a start in this direction. Best.

    Reply
  7. By Gaurav Deshpande on

    only unbiased person is a just-born human – everyone else has a bias, Rajib and Gaurav included :-). That said, there are media outlets that are more self aware of their bias, and there are those that aren’t or don’t care to admit – you friend was most likely offended by the latter.. I agree with your friend – media needs to be better: it must be better than your average for profit, for share investors business. We must expect and support media outlets that have higher standard than other Fortune 100/1000/5000 business.

    Reply
  8. By Raja Visweswaran on

    Interesting point of view; however the question you posed is self-explanatory. If CEOs choose to chase a particular segment of the population, by definition every other segment would be turned off because they would find that channel biased. As long as every channel has its base of haters (and followers), the media sector itself is free ? Which brings us to the next point of why people complain – its innate, but also a function of lazy intellectualizing i.e. I am biased but wish the media didn’t make me biased. That we choose to watch a channel because it is part of our reinforcement bias is of course something that eludes most people.

    Reply

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