SADOW: The Subtle Media Bias Attacking Louisiana’s Republican Candidates

For Republicans to recapture Louisiana’s Governor’s Mansion this fall, one hurdle will be mainstream media inertia.

Here’s an example. Last week, a Shreveport television station interviewed GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham, one of two announced candidates against Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards. The piece made mention of Abraham’s longtime association with the nonprofit group Pilots for Patients, a Monroe-based organization that uses private planes to transport patients needing medical interventions in far-flung places, at no charge.

Abraham, who also flies missions for the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol, isn’t a big contributor and hasn’t recently participated, which is understandable given his time in Congress since 2014 and his time spent volunteering to maintain his medical license. He hasn’t made as many as 20 flights, and you have to look pretty thoroughly around the group’s website to find mention of him. In fact, Abraham doesn’t mention his affiliation with the group on his campaign website while noting his other flying experience.

Still, a web search for the group easily turns up a video of him extolling its virtues to Congress, and within the first couple of dozen links multiple ones identify him to a web searcher as a contributor to the group. In other words, while Abraham doesn’t fling his volunteerism with the group in people’s faces in the style of Edwards with his military service, at the same time it’s clear that he’s associated with it, and any investigation of the group would turn that up.

Except, it would seem, if you’re a stringer for the Baton Rouge Advocate in an election year. In February, the state’s largest newspaper (and about to double in size roughly) ran a piece on the organization, written by Jacqueline DeRobertis, who the paper hired as a crime reporter only days after the article ran (note: I was a stringer for The Advocate at this time). It was a nice feature story – but never mentioned Abraham’s link to the group.

In an election year, I don’t know of anybody who wouldn’t think it newsworthy in a laudatory story about the group that one of its contributors is a serious candidate for governor. In fact, regardless of a statewide contest, it’s newsworthy that a U.S. congressman participates in the group. And, again, if doing a story on the group, it’s inconceivable that Abraham’s affiliation wouldn’t come up, either in interviewing the group’s principals or in researching the organization.

One of three things happened here: the reporter kept the information out of the article, she had it in there but her editor removed it for content reasons, or it got removed later in the process for space reasons. With today’s technology that lends itself to precision in layout, the third reason is very unlikely (only something unusual or last-minute would cause that), so she either didn’t bother to include it or the editor spiked that information, perhaps being up against a word count.

Either way, missing even a few words identifying Abraham as a prominent group alumnus reveals something. Selection is everything in the media; simply, you can’t run all the information you would like that you think is important. Additionally, you don’t have all the time in the world because of deadlines; when one approaches, you have to use heuristics to determine what to look at in more detail.

In these instances, the personal beliefs of reporters and editors come into play. Let’s review a common scenario in the mainstream media where political liberalism dominates (extraordinarily so at the national level, diluted somewhat moving towards the local). If a story has some aspect to it which confirms a liberal view, media outlets tend to accept it at face value; but, if it confirms a conservative view, that is considered more critically.

That review takes time and effort; since the information contradicts the person’s world view, he must find something to explain it away, which requires gathering more information. And then it must be explained away, which takes space. Keep in mind that people don’t like cognitive dissonance, and that is resolved while keeping the information intact in just one of two ways: find the exculpatory evidence that explains the seeming inconsistency away or do the much more cognitively difficult thing in accepting the information and altering your beliefs as a result.

There is a third alternative: discard the information. Putting this in the context of what stories and content the mainstream delivers, because of space and deadline pressures, stories and content congruent with the views of the people involved are much more likely to appear than those that don’t. The effort to deal with adverse information to their world views often proves too costly in the news delivery context, and so it is dealt with by not dealing with it.

And while sometimes its simply overt, intentional political bias which drives story and content selection (especially in the national media) often subconsciously appears. Keep in mind as well that people in the media often live in a bubble, exposed to and consuming only products delivered by others in the media of like mind, so they often have little inkling about the breadth and depth of ideas opposing and/or critical of their own. (Many are the times throughout the decades of my opinion writing where editors of mine questioned facts I presented, and then seemed genuinely surprised at these when I elaborated about their sources and data, relating commonly-available information which any reasonably well-informed person would know yet they seemingly were encountering for the first time.)

This likely explains the Advocate piece leaving out Abraham’s role with Pilots for Patients. Like many elected officials on the political right, he doesn’t fit well the caricature that liberalism paints of conservatives as uncharitable members of the upper class disinterested in human suffering. Even though naming him as a group participant would have interested readers, especially with him now running for governor, putting that in would seem to send the story off on another tangent; i.e., a Republican officeholder apparently going against type, and if you believed that it’s not a distraction to the story you’d want to deal with on deadline and with space at a premium.

A less subtle example of this phenomenon comes from my previous post, about a series of stories critical of the Louisiana Scholarship Program that pays tuition at private schools for students from lower-income families who would attend a lower-performing public school. As my post notes, the series neglects to point out that for performance as good (bad?) as the public schools the private schools in the LSP educate much less expensively and also that a number of factors make the performance of the private schools look worse than it probably is. This unwillingness by the journalists involved to go beyond the issue’s surface likely stems from an inherent bias on their part against vouchers; what they saw on the surface confirmed their worldview, so they felt no need to critically appraise their narrative which only incompletely describes the real world issue.

This attitude common in the mainstream media will weigh on Abraham’s campaign, as well as on that of Edwards’ other GOP challenger Eddie Rispone. Information filtering, usually without conscious intent, will shape the products disseminated by these outlets subtly biased in favor of Edwards and against the Republicans. Whether that makes a difference, as candidates increasingly bypass media outlets for direct communication with activists who filter messages to voters with casual interest in politics, we don’t yet know.

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