Bias is good

Red, but not a red top.

In professional cycling, the more dangerous surface to race on is not the slippery one, or a rough / cobbled one, but an unpredictable one. The cyclists can slow down, and/or change the angle of approach if they know about the slippery conditions, or broken road surface. Crashes happen when they go into a corner full gas not knowing about the bad road surface condition ahead.

Moving from pro-cycling to media (and people), the problems caused by bias are just the same. It’s easier to deal with a person who you know is strongly, and consistently biased one way or the other1 – irrespective of whether that bias is in alignment with, or against, your own biases views. It’s the unpredictable ones who are harder to read (and deal with). As interesting as people are to write about, in this post, I’ll stick to media.

Karthik wrote about what he considers The Economist’s *shit* coverage of Indian politics, tinted by their bias against Narendra Modi. Yet, he continues to read the newspaper2 for their non-Indian-politics coverage. However, in view of his recent discovery of the Murray Gell-mann Amnesia effect, Karthik ponders whether he can trust The Economist’s viewpoint on other topics anymore. Read his full post here.

The Predictable

My take on this issue is different. It relies on known and unknown biases. Having been a paid subscriber of The Economist for about 8 years now, I have come to identify their bias as ‘Economically Conservative, Socially Liberal34.

Once this bias is kept in mind, reading their coverage is quite useful. For instance, right from the time of endorsing a candidate for the Indian general elections last year, they’ve made clear their affection for Modi’s economic policies, and disaffection for his social ones. It was their discomfort with his social policies (and unaccounted, unrepented-for past actions) that made them not endorse him outright. And it’s the lagging economic policy implementation, combined with expanding social policies’ dragnet, that continues to keep them apprehensive about him.

And it’s not just Modi. The magazine recently lambasted Osborne, for letting politics, rather than economics, dictate his budget in a cover story. And this despite them endorsing the Conservatives for government in last elections.

I prefer this consistency of bias, and it’s not just the Economist doing it: Guardian (full left5 on social and economic policy), Telegraph (full right6 on all policies), NYT (mildly left), WSJ (quite right), etc. I can read news coverage (but not the editorials/viewpoints) in any of them, and make out the gist of the story after applying relevant filter.

The Unpredictable

What I don’t like is the unpredictability of red tops – both old and new, British and Indian. The only angle they have for covering a story is what will cause maximum outrage and page views. There’s no integrity to reporting – in bias of viewpoint, or variety of topics covered. An article on Chinese-Vietnamese flash point in South China sea will be followed by suggested follow-on reads ranging from a listicle of most outrage-generating, animal hunts by Americans in Africa, to photos of a footballer’s wife in stringy bikini in the backyard pool of her Mediterranean holiday villa. The only time we see them taking a stance is when their owners dictate the editorial to push a particular point to further their private interests.

Despite it being my favourite British newspaper, I also find The Independent’s centrism on all issues, social or economic, slightly confusing. It makes it hard to apply a bias filter on an article, unless I know the specific author’s bias. Yet, this is one kind of muddled up bias I’m willing, and happy, to cope with.

My Conclusion

In a world where completely unbiased media (and people) are impossible and impractical, a well-known and consistent bias in the media (and people) is a great feature, and not a flaw.

  1. That’s what was Joker’s weakness too. He just wanted to see the world burn. Which made his bias clear – always in favour of more chaos, as against the mafioso who preferred peace and trade – and eventually helped Batman counter him. Two Face, on the other hand, worked on unpredictability of the coin. That should’ve made him slightly more dangerous. 
  2. The Economist prefers to call themselves a newspaper. So does Karthik. I prefer calling them a magazine :) 
  3. One exception to this rule, and it also follows a well-defined, steady bias, is coverage of conflict between the US/UK and other countries – military, diplomatic or economic. In this case, the coverage is almost always comprehensively biased in favour of actions of the US/UK. Quite obvious considering they are a British magazine, with ties to the establishment, and probably have most of their subscribers in the US & the UK.
    Interestingly, this bias is weaker when applied to past events, as visible in The Economist’s criticism of the Iraq invasion. 
  4. Related: my hopeless urge for a political party epitomising this bias. 
  5. Shorthand for liberal, full left may tend on socialist 
  6. Shorthand for conservative, full right may tend on extreme, exclusionist, conservatism 

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