A Psychological Explanation for Censorship and Claims of “Media Bias”

by on July 24, 2006 · 4 comments

In my college days, I majored in both journalism and political science, but I briefly flirted with the idea of a major in psychology as well. (Actually, I was just trying to extend my college partying days as long as possible but I ran out of money!) While I was briefly flirting with the idea of a psychology major, I took a psyc class that featured a brief discussion of a subject that would forever change the way I look at the world and media issues in particular: “third-person-effect hypothesis.” Simply stated, the hypothesis predicts that people tend to overestimate the influence of communications / media on the attitudes and behavior of others relative to themselves. For example, many people will see media “bias” where there is none (or very little) and they will often advocate a “re-tilting” of the news in their preferred direction. (Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, there’s plenty of research to back up the thesis.)

When I first read about this hypothesis, I experienced a profound personal epiphany; a real “ah-hah!” moment that helped me finally unlock the secret to why so many people alleged media bias where I personally saw none. Specifically, it helped me understand why good friends of mine on both the political Left and Right saw different forms of bias in the exact same news. As someone who was, and remains, rabidly independent (I’ve never voted for either major party in my life and I doubt I ever will), I was always fascinated by this. When I sat down with classmates, friends, roommates or others to watch the news, I’d witnessed endless bickering among them about supposed slant one way or the other. But, with a few exceptions, I never quite saw or heard that bias myself. I’m not saying that all news is perfectly unbiased, it’s just that a large percentage of the time it is not biased and yet people argue that it is, but in decidedly different ways and directions.

What explains this? The answer is “third-person-effect hypothesis” and “hostile media effect” theory. To explain, let me step back and begin by telling you what got me thinking about this again.

“Hostile Media Effect” Theory

Today’s Washington Post features an intriguing article by staff writer Shankar Vedantam entitled “Two Views of the Same News Find Opposite Biases,” and it includes that wonderful subtitle: “Dispatches from the Department of Human Behavior.” Vedantam is interested in finding out “why people reach dramatically different conclusions about the same events.” Specifically, Vedantam examines how pro-Israel and pro-Arab audiences frequently view the same news through two very different news filters and form diametrically opposing views about the nature of that news.

Vedantam cites a 1982 study of 144 subjects–of both pro-Israel and pro-Arab dispositions–who were asked to view the same 6 television news segments about the 1982 Isreal-Lebanon conflict. The results, according to Vedantam:

“Pro-Arab viewers heard 42 references that painted Israel in a positive light and 26 references that painted Israel unfavorably. Pro-Israeli viewers, who watched the very same clips, spotted 16 references that painted Israel positively and 57 references that painted Israel negatively. Both groups were certain they were right and that the other side didn’t know what it was talking about.”

Vedantam notes that psychologists who study this have coined the term “hostile media effect” to describe “the sincere belief among partisans that news reports are painting them in the worst possible light.” And what is most interesting about this field of study is that researchers have found that the “hostile media effect” seems mostly to apply to news outlets and sources that strive for balance. I certainly noticed this back in college whenever I’d watch something on the nightly news or The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS, or we’d debate something we read in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Allegations of bias would fly from both the Left and Right. But when we discussed something that we had seen or heard on a “talking head” show, where plenty of real bias and partisanship was evident, there seemed to be much less concern or interest in discussing that bias; people just took it as a given or discounted it as “fluff” or “fake news.”

What “hostile media effect” tells us, then, is that many people read bias into news where there is none (or very little) simple because they don’t like the fact that their specific viewpoint is not stressed or represented with enough vigor. Vedantam quotes Stanford psychologist Lee D. Ross on this point: “If I think the world is black, and you think the world is white, and someone comes along and says it is gray, we will both think that person is biased.” Thus, an objective news outlet or journalist is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they present the news in a fairly objective (“gray”) way, partisans on both sides will decry the fact that their specific views were supposedly not given enough weight. But then if you introduce personalities who wear their views on their sleeves, they are dismissed outright.

But to really understand what motivates “hostile media effect,” we have to dig deeper into the human psyche and consider the closely related “third-person effect hypothesis.”

“Third-Person-Effect Hypothesis”

Last year, I published a book about the fight over media ownership reform and general concerns about media power. As I noted in that book, much of the case for retaining current media ownership regulations is based on theories about media bias or the supposedly dismal quality of the news and entertainment at our collective disposal. More radically, some media critics on both the political Left and Right propagate what I referred to as “puppet-master” theories of media manipulation; the idea that a handful of execs in New York or Hollywood are programming our thoughts or force-feeding us only the crummy entertainment they want us to see. (Apparently they hold back the good stuff for their own viewing or listening pleasure!)

What explains this strange phenomenon? Again, it comes down to basic human psychology. As Slate press critic and editor-at-large Jack Shafer has argued, “The first accusation of press bias surely flew the day the first newspaper was published.” Indeed, media critics abound in our society and they always have. Today, whether discussing news or entertainment, what is most ironic about the strange alliance of interests who support media regulation is how they all simultaneously claim that media are too homogenous for their tastes and all controlled by the same corporate masters.

For example, liberals argue there is too much right-wing bias in media today, and cite conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh or cable TV’s Fox News Channel as evidence. Eric Alterman, a media columnist for The Nation magazine, wrote an entire book in 2003 entitled What Liberal Media? to respond to accusations by conservatives of liberal bias in media. And in November 2002, former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) went so far as to argue that conservative radio hosts like Limbaugh were cultivating dangerous attitudes in the minds of the public, so much so that it posed a threat to his life! When asked if he believed there was a link between such conservative talk radio criticism and his personal security, he said: “I do. Oh, absolutely. . . [C]ertainly in terms of threats, I think that there’s no question.”

Meanwhile, conservatives have spent decades grumbling about the supposed liberal slant to virtually all news and entertainment programs on television and radio. The phrase “liberal media” seems to fall off the tongues of many conservative politicians and pundits with the greatest of ease. For example, early in the 2004 presidential campaign season, L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center accused the national media of “Bush-bashing and Kerry-boosting” and a “litany of Democratic favoritism.” Bozell has made a career out of crying “liberal bias” at any news program he does not favor and even edited an entire book about supposed left-leaning slant of modern media.

Thus, media critics on both the political left and right claim that bias is rampant in media today. As James Fallows says, “One great truth of political life is that each side is absolutely convinced that the other has an unfair advantage in getting its views out.”

But if such divergent interests on the Left and Right can today look out at the media marketplace and find something to gripe about, then, by definition, today’s overall media offerings must be quite diverse! But that doesn’t stop both sides from claiming “bias” and advocating regulation to remedy it. Again, as Jack Shafer of Slate notes, “Whenever conservatives talk to liberals about press bias–or vice versa–they talk right past one another. Both factions seem to work backward from their conclusions to the evidence and damn what the other side says.” Therefore, Shafer concludes that “it’s hard to put much stock in what left and right press critics say because their views are so patently motivated by ideology. In other words, the intense and public biases of the press critics make them unreliable readers of press bias.” Likewise, as The Economist editorialized in 2003 at the height of the backlash to media ownership reform: “Behind almost every argument about why the FCC endangers democracy lurks a grudge about content: it is too conservative; it is too liberal; it is too violent; it under-represents feminists, or the Catholic Church. Merely cataloging these conflicting grievances shows the impossibility of ever resolving them.”

Again, critics sometimes seem to see and hear in media only what they want to see and hear. And many people desire media regulation (or at least tolerate it) because they think it will be good for others, not necessarily for themselves. This is why psychologists label this phenomenon the “third-person effect;” because we claim “bias” when we fear it certain forms of communications might have a persuasive effect on others.

The third-person-effect hypothesis was first formulated by psychologist W. Phillips Davison in a seminal 1983 article in Vol. 47 of Public Opinion Quarterly. In that article, he noted:

“In its broadest formulation, this hypothesis predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves.”

Davison went on to argue that:

“One possible explanation for the fact that people on both sides of an issue can see the media as biased against their own point of view is that each observer assumes a disproportionate effect will be achieved by arguments or facts supporting the “wrong” side of the issue. Others (the third persons), the observer reasons, will be unduly impressed by these facts or argument; they do not have the information that enables me to form a correct opinion. It is probable that, from the point of view of the partisans, balanced media presentation would require a sharp tilt toward the “correct” side of the issue. This would compensate for the intellectual frailty of third persons and would, according to the partisan, ensure that the media achieved a truly balanced presentation. But, if the third-person effect hypothesis is correct, why are not the facts and arguments on the “correct” sides as well as the “wrong” side seen as having a disproportionate effect on others?”

This point is worth emphasizing. As Davison notes, so powerful is this phenomenon in the minds of many that for them to believe that media was truly balanced or unbiased “would require a sharp tilt toward the ‘correct’ side of the issue.” In other words, to rectify what they feel is the overt bias of the media, they would want to see more overt bias in their direction. But which direction is that? And if the scales were somehow tilted in one direction or another by the government, the First Amendment would be betrayed. Whether it’s overt or indirect, it’s still government censorship.

Needless to say, the third-person-effect hypothesis has profound ramifications for many other forms of media regulation and provides an explanation for the staying power of some forms of regulation, especially media censorship. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects about censorship efforts historically is that it is apparent that many censorship advocates desire regulation to protect others, not themselves, from what they perceive to be persuasive or harmful content. That is, many people imagine themselves immune from ill effects of “indecent” material, or even just persuasive communications or viewpoints they do not agree with, but claim it will have a corrupting influence on others.

Along these lines, a December 2004 Washington Post article documented the process by which the Parents Television Council screens various television programming. PTC rates a wide variety of television and cable content and issues reports to parents about the nature of that programming. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but PTC routinely crosses the line and proposes that policymakers regulate that content as well. In other words, we know what’s best for your or your kids and you don’t, so we need government to step in here and play the role of surrogate parent. Anyway, in the Post story, one of the PTC screeners interviewed for the story talked about the societal dangers of various broadcast and cable programs she rates, but then also noted how much she personally enjoys HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” as well as ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Apparently, in her opinion, what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander! Evidentially, she thinks herself immune to the damaging impact or influence of all that supposedly “smutty” content she screens on our behalf. Did she ever stop and think to herself: “Geez, I’ve watched hours upon hours of this stuff, and so far I haven’t turned into a sex monster or a mass murderer. Perhaps other will realize it’s just fiction as well.” Apparently not because PTC still regularly calls on its members to petition Congress or the FCC for more regulation of broadcast and cable programming. This is third-person-effect hypothesis at work, and with a vengeance.

This is not say that PTC screeners or public policymakers do not have the well-being of themselves or their own families in mind when they call for media regulation. But, as the third-person effect research illustrates, all too often it is simple paternalism that motivates the calls for censorship or even media ownership controls. Indeed, that’s what debates over media regulation are really all about; a handful of elites telling the rest of the public what’s good for them or, worse yet, telling the public that they don’t know how to take care of themselves or their children, so they must do it for us.

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