Thursday, 30 March 2017

A simple measure of media focus or bias?

A linguist made an observation to me last year concerning media focus, which has been at the back of my mind of late. Responding to a student project on media focus and bias, they wondered whether another way of measuring media bias might be to count how often different media outlets use the phrase "far right" versus "far left"—since these are, at least in part, terms of abuse: ways of labeling political views or actions as extreme.

The linguist reasoned that, if there is a fairly-even distribution of votes for centre-left and centre-right parties, there are probably as many far-left as far-right voters too. And if the left is just as active as the right, you would expect an unbiased media to label as many ideas or actions as far or extreme left as right.

It did occur to me at the time that, if "far left" activists spend their weekends knitting, while "far right" activists are burning down refugee centres, the media would have good reasons to refer to "far right" more than "far left". Or, reporters might fill newpapers with glowing reports about "far right" fascists and attacks on "far laft" Marxists, so the number of references might be equal but a bias still be present.

Still, as I said, the question got me thinking. There did seem to be a lot more discussion of the "far right" than "far left" in the media. So, when an acquaintance decried the right-wing drift of the ABC, I started thinking about this "test" again. And every time since, when I have read an accusation of left-wing bias at the ABC, I have thought that I should have a go at this test and see what the results are.

Since I'd really rather think about something else, and it was obvious that the only way I could stop thinking about this was to take to Google to do a series of site-searches, I decided to do this, post the results here, and return to my Haywood research. I looked at all the major local newspapers and a few famous US papers for comparison. I have sorted them according to how many more times the site refers to "far right" than "far left" (the multiple).

As you can see, on this measure: The Daily Mail is, improbably, the least biased of all media outlets in its labeling of political ideas or actions as "far" (50:50 split in references to "far left" and "far right" on its site [multiple equals one]). Brietbart—the only site to refer to "far left" more than "far right"—is about as focussed on left-wing extremism as The Australian is on the right-wing extremism (!?!; with three times as many references to either "far left" or "far right" [the multiples being one-third and three]).

The Age is obsessively-focussed on right-wing extremism (with six times as many references to "far right" as "far left" [multiple of six]), while the SBS is almost twice as obsessed as the obsessively-focussed Age (making them "madly-" or "insanely-focussed"? [multiple of eleven]). The ABC is so far beyond "insanely-focussed" on the right, by this measure, that superlatives fail me: a multiple of seventeen! I.e., seventeen times as many references to "far right" as "far left"—94 percent of all reference to "far-[anything]" being "far right." The numbers are amazing too: the ABC has a few more references to "far left" than The Australian, but more than six times as many references to the "far right"!

Obviously, there are lots of problems with this as a measure of focus, and even more with translating focus to bias in labeling people, ideas, actions etc. as extreme: it may be that all forty-thousand ABC references to the "far right" are objectively-speaking, unbiased and even-handed, with no suggestion that the "far right" are extreme in any way. It may be that, every other news outlet is massively under-reporting "far right" activity. And, as I said, it is unclear whether this is actually right-wing bias: with innumerable glowing reports about fascists mixed with a small number of attacks on Marxists (or even an uneven number of references to people sitting in the "far left" of pubs, clubs and stadiums).

However, if Brietbart is itself usually described as a "far right" media outlet—because of its obsession with, and attacks on, what it calls the "far left"—that does suggest that The Australian is "far left," since its references to extreme left and right activity are the statistical mirror-image of Brietbart. And this suggests that the ABC would have to be described as far-far-far-far-far left (i.e., more than five times as far "far left" as Brietbart is "far right"?). It seems unlikely that the ABC is five times as biased as Brietbart, but the fact that the ABC has almost three times as many references to "far right" as Brietbart has references to "far left" does suggests—at the least—something about the usage of these terms.

A general Google search does bring up twice as many references to "far right" as "far left" so, perhaps, the Daily Telegraph is closer to the centre than the Daily Mail, SBS is only as biased as Brietbart (the former have six times more references to the "far right" than the internet average, the later roughly one sixth), and the ABC is only eight or nine times as focussed on the "far right" as the rest of the world combined (as represented on the internet), or only 1.5 times as far to the left of the internet-average as Brietbart is to the right. Perhaps.

Anyway, as should be clear, linguistics and media/communications are not really my forte. I couldn't work out how to get Excel to establish a multiple based on the internet average of 2:1 for far right:left. And I haven't done enough maths to confidently discuss any of the above in relation to standard deviation, which I suspect I should. But I have pretty-much satisfied my own curiosity, so I am quite happy to let the subject go.

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