“Bias” vs Errors

To continue with what I was saying about “bias” yesterday, I really do with that people involved in journalism would get less defensive about the idea of people complaining about their work. The issue is that when you have a whole bunch of people doing something, there’s a fair chance that some of them will make mistakes some of the time. In some lines of work, however, there are very strong financial incentives militating in favor of quality control — Toyota’s big recall last month was financial devastating to the company, which is why car companies generally try to make sure that the cars they build function properly.

The news business just isn’t like that. The financial incentives to rigor and accuracy are pretty weak. Consequently, even if everyone is operating in good faith all the time (which is obviously an overestimation of the quantity of good faith) there are going to be problems in the coverage. And since political activists believe — by definition — that their view of the world is correct, activists are going to believe that inaccurate or otherwise problematic coverage is a huge problem specifically for their side. After all, the team that’s correct really needs people to have accurate information about the world.

So people complain! Why wouldn’t they?

But this whole enterprise should be distinguished from the trope of complaining that “the media” suffers from “bias” which is a different kind of thing. To an extent, I think you can detect real biases — in favor of covering new things rather than long-festering issues, in favor of personality-based explanations rather than structural ones, in favor of narrative rather than quantitative analysis, etc. But to say “hey newspaper, stop publishing stories that explain this wrong” is different from saying there’s a nefarious bias in the water.