Sunday, September 08, 2013

Rupert moves minds? Sure, if you already agree with him

ABC 891 Adelaide September 18 2013 Right click to download

Ray Hadley holds two apparently contradictory views.

On one hand the 2GB jock thinks it’s important to tell people what he thinks. During the campaign he said Labor’s David Bradbury a dill, a sycophant and a lapdog.

On the other he thinks what he says makes no difference. He told Four Corners: “I can enunciate how I feel about David Bradbury, but at the end of the day the voters of Lindsay, I mean they're not going to take any notice of a shock jock and what he thinks of David Bradbury, they'll form their own assumptions”.

It’s the kind of get-out-of-jail-free card used by Fox News in the US. One of its slogans is “We report, you decide”. But if Fox News is right and it doesn’t sway opinions, it’s worth asking why it tries so hard - unless it’s for entertainment. It’s also worth asking the same question about Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. Was it merely trying to entertain us with its front page depicting Kevin Rudd as a Nazi prison camp commandant, or was it trying to shift votes.

Rudd thought so. He said News Corp was in a coalition with the Coalition to bring him down.

Economists are inclined to side with Hadley. They don’t think slanted coverage matters. They think we are rational. Here’s how a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research puts it:

“A media source injects bias into its coverage of a political candidate. A rational viewer, knowing the exact extent of the bias, realises that often times bad news is not reported and good news is exaggerated. If the viewer has a good sense of the degree of the media source’s bias, she will take into account the media source’s bias and discount the news.”

Nifty, eh? Actually, it’s pretty much how we think it works when it comes to ourselves. We are not swayed by biased coverage, only others are.

It’s a hard proposition to test...

In the case of Rupert Murdoch it is widely believed he backs whichever leader is are likely to win anyway, pocketing an undeserved reputation for swinging the vote.

But an usual occurrence at the turn of the century allowed two researchers to try. Stefano Della Vigna and Ethan Kaplan noticed that Murdoch’s Fox News channel was being rolled out to some towns ahead of others. In otherwise identical towns next to each other, one had Fox News, the other did not.

Comparing those towns they calculated that in the 2000 George Bush - John Kerry contest Fox News managed to persuade 3 to 8 pc of its viewers to change their votes, a shift that may “have been decisive”.

A more recent reexamination of the data reached a less alarming conclusion. Fox News was indeed persuasive in getting Republican-leaning voters to actually vote Republican, but had no effect (if anything an anti-Bush effect) on voters likely to vote Democratic.

It’s hard to change opinions, easy to reinforce them. And this is where it gets personal. Newspapers such as this one (our slogan is Independent, Always) ought to work against polarisation. We report the views of people all sides. Except they don’t. The latest research suggests that reporting a range of views actually hardens pre existing positions.

Harvard University economists Edward Glaeser and Cass Sunstein outline it in a paper entitled Why does balanced news produce unbalanced views?

One of the studies involved capital punishment. People were asked to read arguments both in favor of and against. Both supporters and opponents hardened their opinions.

Another involved reports that attempted to settle questions (fact checking). People were shown arguments about the proposition that cutting taxes is so effective at boosting economic growth it actually lifts government revenue. Then they were shown evidence that it did not. Those who believed the claim to start with “ended up believing this claim more fervently” after seeing the refuting evidence.

People shown both good news and bad news about themselves or people like them (intelligence, attractiveness, the likelihood of getting cancer) took the good news on board, but downplayed or forgot the bad.

Ray Hadley might be more correct than you might think (and probably as correct as he thinks). He can’t much influence the people of western Sydney, unless its in the direction they were likely to move anyway. And I can’t much influence you (even when I am checking facts) unless its in the direction you were heading anyway.

I don’t like it, but then I’m not inclined to like it. I’m hard to convince.

In The Canberra Times and The Sydney Morning Herald

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