Monthly Archives: October 2011

Detecting Media Bias: Tag Clouds for Fox News and MSNBC

As an experiment, I decided to create tag clouds of the aggregated news transcripts from both Fox and MSNBC — obtained from the LexisNexis database, covering from October 20th to the 28th — just to see if any themes emerged.

Fox Tag Cloud

MSNBC Tag Cloud

I’ll follow this posting up in the next few days with my observations, but I’d like to get insights from others before offering up my own.

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Reasons for Watching Political News: To Be Informed or To Be Affirmed?

As explore methods for measuring media bias, a different consideration has come to mind. Measuring how bias is delivered by the media is a significant challenge, but I have become increasingly curious about how political messaging is received.

Said another way, why do people watch political news … really?

I believe that there are 2 basics answers to that question:

  1. Viewers come to be informed about a political issues, or:
  2. People watch to affirm positions that emanate from their personal desires, their preconceived notions, their vested interests, their group affiliations, as well as from information rationally processed previously.

These states of mind are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they represent a kind of mental continuum. On one end, the viewer’s mind is openly accepting and processing new information. At the other, political news content rides along well-travelled synaptic pathways, affirming previously-accepted beliefs. What makes this more interesting, and perhaps more troubling, is that most viewers believe that they are watching only to be informed, when they are in fact unknowingly creating a kind of mental muscle-memory.

When a notion is repeatedly affirmed in one’s mind, the more embedded it becomes. In extreme cases, a thoroughly entrenched belief is virtually unchangeable. Studies have shown that, when presented with unimpeachable evidence to the contrary, believers often become more dogmatic about their convictions. This phenomenon, known in psychological circles as “cognitive dissonance,” occurs when 2 conflicting ideas are held in the mind simultaneously. To mitigate this conflict, our minds kick the less troubling idea out. Sometimes forcefully.

Other thought processes play a significant part in the way we ingest news today. Recent “decision theories” suggests that, despite long held beliefs that humans are fundamentally logical thinkers, we instead make primarily emotional decisions, using our intellects to rationalize them ex post facto.  Emotional decision-making may, in fact, be superior to rational thinking if one’s mind is properly trained. So suggests author Jonah Lehrer in his popular novel, How We Decide.

To use Lehrer’s example of NFL quarterback Tom Brady, the emotional brain can process faster than the thinking brain when information is coming in too fast to handle cognitively. In Brady’s case, his well-trained emotional brain can instantly calculate exactly where to throw a football, in the face of irregular pass blocking, random blitzes, and 5 receivers running intricate pass patterns on a wet, windy day.

With the rapid pace of our modern lives and the abundance of messaging bombarding us, Americans are increasingly relying on their emotional brains to make decisions. As with Mr. Brady, this works well if one’s mind has been properly conditioned. Watching game films and consciously re-living moments where both good-and-bad choices were made enables Brady to improve his emotional decision-making.  It is this state of awareness that becomes a means to better his play going forward.

Lofty as it sounds, that’s what my media bias index — of which a new-and-improved version will be introduced in the coming weeks — is intended to do. Bias in the media is a fact of life.  As long as humans generate media content, there will be bias.  Rather than taking on the impossible challenge of eradicating it, my goal is to simply make people aware of what they are ingesting, so that they consciously assess what political content they are taking in, and why.

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