Listen up



You may not trust the media – this or any other – and you shouldn’t.

Journalism is not an exact science. Journalism is a regularly error-filled compilation of some of the facts surrounding a person, place, thing or event of public interest, and it is this way in large part because reporters almost never have all of the facts.

You may not like the media – this or any other – and you shouldn’t.

Journalism is a low-paying business that attracts too many self-involved egotists. They become journalists because they want attention. You can sometimes spot them by their writing style. Events are not recorded simply as observed. It’s all about “I saw this,” and “I heard that,” and “I asked whatever,” and “I told so-and-so,” and etc., etc., etc.

You may not want to support the media – this or any other – and you shouldn’t.

Unless, of course, you want to. Journalism as a commodity exists in the marketplace of ideas, and it will live or die on the marketability of those ideas. The old cliché that dictates “you get what you pay for” functions here as well as in so many other places.

And never have news consumers had so much power to decide what succeeds and fails. How and whether you use that power is worth thinking about given a new study that concludes news still matters – possibly now more than ever.

Shaping the discussion

Researchers Gary King from Harvard, Benjamin Schneer from Florida State University and Aerial White from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology planted stories in “48 mostly small media outlets,” they report in the study published in Science Magazine this  month. “We chose groups of these outlets to write and publish articles on subjects we approved, on dates we randomly assigned.”

After doing this, the researchers tracked website pageviews and Twitter discussions of the specific subjects in the articles. There was an obvious trend.

“Our intervention increased discussion in each broad policy area by approximately 62.7 percent,” they reported.

Historically, they noted, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to track the influence of media, but times have changed.

“Today,” they wrote, “we can take advantage of the fact that much of the conversation has moved to, and is recorded in, the 750 million social media posts that appear publicly on the web every day.”

News in the tubes today provides almost instant feedback for news producers. While you’re reading what some reporter wrote, the same reporter can be tracking what you and others have decided to read.

Still, the media researchers said, it wasn’t easy putting together a randomized study to measure this reader interaction in detail. Among other problems, they noted they had to work out “an ‘incentive-compatible’ research design that allowed them to interject information the reaction to which they could later track while leaving “full editorial control in the hands of the journalists.”

One can only imagine the discussions that went on there. Journalists tend to be very touchy about editorial control.

“Our work was aided by journalists’ natural interest in understanding the impact of their work,” they wrote. “However, they are also competitors, trying to scoop each other. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that we asked these professionals to take actions few journalists have ever before agreed to, to allow researchers to participate in ways that rarely happen, and to share proprietary information with us that they do not even share with each other. We also needed to secure numerous individual agreements and arrange large-scale coordination among competing entities over nearly five years.”

Cue the debate

Some readers are likely to be a little creeped out by this story by now, and maybe they should be. It’s not hard to look at the study as  more than just an examination of how readers interact with the media but how the media can manipulate those interactions.

“To protect the journalistic integrity of the numerous professionals who participated in our experiments, and the reputation of their publications, we do not reveal the specific articles in our experiment, which outlet published each article, or any potentially identifiable individual-level aspects of the data we collected,” the authors write. “We retained full rights to scholarly publication, without any required review or preapproval. To maintain a high level of realism, we tried to ensure that media outlets followed their standard operating procedures, embedding our treatment within their ordinary routines. The resulting protocol made our design more expensive, logistically complicated, and time-consuming, but it should be more generalizable and compatible with the goals and norms of both the journalistic and scientific communities.”

The lack of transparency and the mention of goals sans  an explicit explanation of those goals should make readers uncomfortable. But it’s pretty clear in reading the full study that it would not have been possible without these operational sideboards.

(Trust the author on this; he’s a journalist.)

A lot of what the study found has long been obvious though never well documented, starting with the fact that what the media decides not to cover might be as important as what it does cover, and what it does cover has some influence.

“Our news media intervention…changed the composition of opinion expressed in the national conversation by 2.3 percentage points in the ideological direction conveyed by our published articles; individuals may or not have been persuaded to change their views, but the overall testimony given publicly changed noticeably,” the researchers reported. “Overall, our experiments revealed large news media effects on the content of the national conversation across 11 important areas of public policy, political party, gender, region, and level of social influence. Positive media effects have long been suspected in the literature, but the large size of these effects approximates even some of the long-standing speculations (and accusations) of media critics.”

The short version there, as many thought, is that the media can’t dictate the outcome of our national debates, but it can change a few minds. And it has a huge influence on what we debate.

When you hear your liberal friends complaining about Fox News reporting on X when it should be reporting on Y, this is what they’re talking about.

And when you hear your conservative friends complaining about MSNBC reporting on Y when it should be reporting on X, this is what they’re talking about.


Where your local news outlets fall in the Fox-MSNBC continuum is up to every reader, viewer and listener to decide, but everyone should recognize that for all the talk about journalistic objectivity no news outlet, including this one, is wholly objective.

So, so much of what gets covered is decided by very fallible reporters and editors, and even more so by the government and business organs that pump out media “news releases” in vast quantities every day. Many of the latter concern crime, disaster, the weather and similar benign subjects. Many others push bureaucratic, business or other agendas.

How big can their influence be?

“…We found a news story about a previously embargoed scholarly article about fracking affecting drinking water, at a time when little else in the policy area was being discussed,” the authors wrote. “We observed a one-day spike in discussion in the broad policy area of water quality and related issues of more than 300 percent. Numerous public policy issues have far higher visibility than fracking, many with far more impactful ‘interventions.’ Although further research is needed to confirm this large effect, it appears that some articles published may have a multiple of the already large effect size we found.”

Some conservatives are likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to this as “bad,” but it’s not. Democracies are powered by free and open debate. They survive on free and open debate.


There is always a but. In this case, it can be found along the thin line between news and propaganda.

“Given the tremendous power of media outlets to set the agenda for public discussion, the ideological and policy perspectives of those who own media outlets have considerable importance for the nature of American democracy and public policy,” the authors conclude. “The ideological balance across the news media ecosystem, among the owners of media outlets, needs considerable attention as well. The ability of the media to powerfully influence our national conversation also suggests profound implications for future research on “fake news” potentially having similar effect sizes or ‘filter bubbles’ potentially reducing or directing these effects.”

Given the study was written by social scientists and not journalists, it is a rather ponderous read, but worth it for anyone really interested on what the news is doing to them today and, to some degree, what they are doing to the news.















7 replies »

  1. “If it bleeds it leads” and “journalism is the first rough
    draft of history, with emphasis on rough”.

  2. So, just to sum it all up, if people talk about something it gets talked about more. If they don’t talk about it then it doesn’t get talked about. Got it.

    The part I’m having trouble with is the whole fake news part, as if this is a new phenomena. The age old saying that you can’t believe everything you read in the paper came about for a reason, mainly due to the fact that people who peddle their wares for profit learn quickly what sells and what doesn’t.

    • close, but not quite, Steve-O. the sum is more that if you give someone a megaphone and a platform they can get more people talking about something than if the instigator is empty handed in the wilderness yelling into a windstorm.
      and i’d take your last sentence as a compliment if true, but many journalists are clueless as to what sells, which is just another way of saying “what people are interested in.” if they recognized what sells, there wouldn’t be so much boring shit written.

      • Well there is no accounting for taste. You seem to recognize what sells, or at least what gets people to read and comment. Your articles with the most comments seem to get more follow up stories than those without…even if they are “boring shit” in my mind.

        What do you make of this “Our news media intervention…changed the composition of opinion expressed in the national conversation by 2.3 percentage points in the ideological direction conveyed by our published articles” in regards to our last gubernatorial election wherein the largest paper in the state was all in for the current governor and all in on getting the then sitting governor out of office, especially considering the margin of victory was 2.2%? Propaganda has been proven to work, that’s why it is used..whether by journalists, bloggers, or governments.

      • i’d say 2.3 percent isn’t much except when it’s just enough. and i’d love to know how they statistically defined “ideological direction.” i know it when i see it, i think, but drawing up some objective standards to define that (if they did) could not have been easy.

      • I guess the part that really gets me is that there are people out there studying not how to make the world a better place, but how to make people think a certain way. I suppose the one solace I can take from this is that, at least in this study, it isn’t being done behind closed doors…well it was, but they’ve made the results public if anybody cares is a different question altogether.

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