Cutbacks or Hostile Media Effect?

Pew just came out with a State of the Media report. The main interpretation (which seems to originate with the authors) has been that the media are stuck in a death spiral as cost-cutting decreases coverage which in turn diminishes the audience (eg, see here and here). I have a lot of sympathy for the death spiral model and it’s certainly a relatively appealing model for journalists and j-school types (as it implies a switch to a subsidized and/or NPO model will solve all their problems) but as a reading of the survey results it is simply wrong.

The fundamental misunderstanding is to presume that consumers evaluate news coverage the same way the CJR does. They don’t. As argued by Gentzkow and Shapiro, consumers evaluate news with regards to their ideological priors. That is, almost nobody reads the newspaper and says “I am offended that this story seems to have allowed the journalist inadequate time to report the story exhaustively” but lots of people read the paper and say “I am offended that this story takes the point of view that I disagree with.”

So when consumers answer “yes” to the question “Have you stopped turning to a particular news outlet because you felt they were no longer providing you with the news and information you were accustomed to getting?,” they probably aren’t thinking “I miss the in-depth reporting and investigative work I used to see” but rather “I no longer trust the media as reflecting my values.”

There are three key pieces of evidence in the report itself for the Gentzkow and Shapiro model:

  1. When asked to elaborate problems with content, far more respondents said “The stories are less complete” than “there are fewer stories.” I strongly suspect by “less complete” many respondents are choosing the closest available option from the forced choice set to map onto “bias” allegations.
  2. Dissatisfaction and abandonment is concentrated among men and Republicans. Although there are “hostile media” allegations from the left (eg, Herman and Chomsky, Media Matters, etc), in recent years conservatives have been the most vociferous in alleging media bias and providing an alternative “fair and balanced” media ecosystem. As such, conservatives are exactly among whom you’d expect to see the Gentzkow and Shapiro effect concentrated. (I’m bracketing the issue of whether it is justified for conservatives to feel this way since for our purposes only their subjective views are relevant).
  3. 57% of respondents who are aware of media financial problems think they’re immaterial to coverage about national and international issues. I’m not one to believe that survey responses have to be logically consistent, but this only makes sense if you think the issue is bias, not man-hours.

The upshot is that my reading of the survey in light of the Gentzkow and Shapiro model is that the way for media outlets to survive and thrive is to engage in what traditionally trained journalists would regard as lower quality, by forsaking the objectivity genre and pandering to their readership’s beliefs. To a large extent that’s what we’ve been seeing already over the last generation as a process of creative destruction.

(Cross-posted at Code and Culture)