AJPS Author Summary: Are Biased Media Bad for Democracy?

AJPS Author Summary of “Are Biased Media Bad for Democracy?by Stephane Wolton

“[N]ews media bias is real. It reduces the quality of journalism, and it fosters distrust among readers and viewers. This is bad for democracy.” (Timothy Carney, New York Times, 2015). It is indeed commonly accepted that media outlets (e.g. newspapers, radio stations, television channels) are ideologically oriented and attempt to manipulate their audience to improve the reputation or electoral chances of their preferred politicians. But if this holds true, aside from the likely detrimental effects of media bias on the quality of journalism, is this bias inevitably bad for democracy?

In my paper, I study a game-theoretical framework to provide one answer to this question. I use a political agency model, in which the electorate faces the problem of both selecting and controlling polarized politicians. I focus on the actions of office-holders, the information available to voters, and the resulting welfare under four different media environments. In the first, a representative voter obtains information from a media outlet that exactly matches her policy preference. I use the term “unbiased” to describe this environment. In the second, the voter receives news reports from two biased media outlets, on the right and the left of the policy spectrum. I define this environment as “balanced” (as in most states in the United States, see here). In the last two cases, the voter’s information comes either from a single right-wing outlet (“right-wing biased environment” as in Italy after Berlusconi’s 1994 electoral victory) or from a single left-wing outlet (“left-wing biased environment” as in Venezuela after the closing down of RCTV in May 2007, in the early years of the Chavez regime).

Two important findings emerge from comparing equilibrium behaviors across these media environments. Not surprisingly, and in line with a large literature, the voter is always less informed with biased news providers (whether the environment is balanced or not) than with an unbiased media outlet. If officeholders’ behavior were to be kept constant, the electorate would necessarily be hurt by biased media. However, my analysis highlights that everything else is not constant across media environments. In many circumstances, politicians behave differently with biased rather than unbiased news providers. Taking into account these equilibrium effects, my paper uncovers conditions under which voters are better off with biased rather than unbiased media. Therefore, the often advanced claim that media bias is bad for democracy needs to be qualified.

My work also holds some implications for empirical analyses of biased media. To measure the impact of media bias, one needs to compare an outcome of interest (say the re-election rate of incumbent politicians) under an unbiased and under a biased media environment. However, the problem researchers face is that they rarely observe a situation with unbiased outlets and they end up using changes in the media environment from balanced to right- or left-wing biased to evaluate the consequences of media bias. My paper shows that (i) unbiased and biased news providers do not provide the same information to voters and (ii) office-holders can behave differently under biased and unbiased news outlets. As a result, estimates obtained using a balanced environment as reference point can over- or under-estimate the impact of biased media.

Returning to the quote used at the beginning of this post, my paper shows that Carney is only partially correct. Media bias does reduce the quality of journalism and foster distrust. However, it is not necessarily bad for democracy. Further, my work suggests that while existing empirical studies of the media measure important quantities, they may not tell us much about the impact of biased news providers vis-a-vis unbiased outlets.

About the Author: Stephane Wolton is an Associate Professor in Political Science in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. Wolton’s research “ Are Biased Media Bad for Democracy? (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12424)” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.