All the News That’s Fit to Print Our Readers Like

James Hamilton takes note of a study by a pair of economists on political slant in newspapers:

Gentzkow and Shapiro propose to measure the slant of a particular newspaper by searching speeches entered into the Congressional Record and counting the number of times particular phrases were used by representatives of each party, mechanically identifying phrases favored by one party over the other. For example, a Democrat is more likely to use the phrase “workers rights” whereas a Republican is more likely to use the phrase “human embryos”. They then counted the number of times phrases of each type appeared in a particular newspaper to construct an index of the political slant of that newspaper. The Gentzkow-Shapiro index of slant (shown on the vertical axis in the diagram below) has a reasonable correlation with subjective measures such as ratings assigned by users of Mondo Times (horizontal axis). For example, both measures agree that the Washington Times is one of the most conservative papers and the Atlanta Constitution is one of the most liberal newspapers.

The study finds, wonder of wonders, that newspapers actually try to suit their coverage to what their markets want to read:

Gentzkow and Shapiro conclude that papers to some degree are just giving their readers what the readers want so as to maximize the newspapers’ profits.

Blow me down!

I haven’t read the study but, if James’s characterization is correct, I’m not sure that the authors’ measurement of how slanted a paper is is adequate. Using certain key phrases isn’t the only way that newspapers slant the news. Another way, most notable in the case of what newspapers elected to cover the stories of John Edwards’s infidelity, is what stories are and aren’t covered. If something happens and no newspaper will cover it, will the story get traction?

Well, nowadays, it will. In the present environment of low entry costs for promulgating information (as in almost free) you really can’t keep a story secret any more. So, for example, we’re not going to see the newspapers successfully hiding the president’s infirmity as was manifestly the case with Roosevelt’s inability to walk or stand without leg braces as was the case since he’d contracted polio in 1921.

I don’t think this new openness will affect presidents’ behavior since in my view an extraordinary propensity for taking risks is part and parcel of getting elected president these days. In my view that’s the simplest explanation of Bill Clinton’s continued shenanigans not only as governor of Arkansas but as President of the United States and George W. Bush’s invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan. They saw the rewards but dramatically under-estimated the risks.

But it will change how we see how are presidents.

2 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    IIRC correctly, there have been other studies showing that newspapers reflect their readers’ views.

    While I think the general openness we see is good, it is plagued by the high level of disinformation which is also higher than ever. It is a shame that people are so lazy and trusting when they can look up facts for themselves.


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