Andrew Leigh and Joshua Gans have a new paper out on media ‘slant’ (which they prefer to ‘bias’, given that reporting can be negative or positive for reasons unrelated to prior partisan feelings).
One of their methodologies for assessing ‘slant’, getting five people to code article and editorial content, seems sensible – though it would be good to extend the analysis beyond the 2004 election campaign, given that it would be quite possible that leadership issues in that campaign made some papers appear more anti-Labor than they are on ideological grounds alone.
But another methodology using public intellectuals, as Sinclair Davidson has argued at Catallaxy, just isn’t going to work.
They’ve rated the partisan nature of various public intellectuals according to whether they are most mentioned by Coalition or Labor politicians in a positive or neutral way. As Sinc points out, this immediately starts to get some very counter-intuitive results:
Does anyone really believe that Philip Adams (26 mentions, 65% Coalition) is a right-winger? Other right-wingers include Eva Cox (9 mentions, 56% Coalition), Germaine Greer (4 mentions, 75% Coalition) and Hugh MacKay (18 mentions, 78% Coalition). Kevin Rudd’s best friend Glyn Davis (18 mentions, 56% Coalition) looks to be a tory too.
The slant of media outlets is then judged by its media mentions of public intellectuals, with neutrality being even mentions of Labor and Coalition favoured intellectuals.
Doubtful original classifications aside, I think the deeper problem here is that most public intellectuals are not party partisan in their public intellectual work – either it just isn’t relevant to the things they are writing about, or their loyalties are to a discipline, ideology, theme or issue above whatever loyalties they might have when voting in elections.
Just because politicians might sometimes find an intellectual’s work convenient for their own purposes doesn’t mean that the intellectual has a partisan bias, or that the newspaper using them reflects any bias or ‘slant’.
As a minor example, one of my Labor parliamentary mentions is somewhat positive – but Kim Carr did not use me because he agrees with any of my views, but because he wanted to show that even right-wingers were unhappy with the 2003 Nelson higher education reforms. I suspect that at least some positive Phillip Adams mentions were like this – Adams used as a left-wing stick with which to beat the ALP.
I’d really like to see which public intellectuals get mentioned the most by which media outlets. But I don’t think this says much if anything about partisan media slant.
Update: Joshua Gans responds, with my reply in his comments thread.