On the Reliability of the “MSM”

(image via imgflip)

I often run across people who just completely dismiss mainstream media (MSM) as being completely unreliable. There is some merit to this perspective, but I think a better understanding of markets might help you get better results from your media sources. Let me explain.

Children playing the board game of Monopoly.
“What do you mean I sunk your Battleship?”

Image via Daily Mail (not a news source I particularly recommend).

First of all, it’s key to keep in mind that “the media” or MSM is not a single entity like a monopoly (where one single company is the only seller) or an oligopoly (where only a handful of companies halfheartedly “compete” with each other) or a cartel (an oligopoly that illegally drops all pretense of competing). Instead, the media landscape is a rather crowded and competitive industry where each player is battling everyone else for attention and dollars. Unlike in socialist economies where the government dictates all the decision in a market, capitalist systems such as ours rely upon decentralized decision-making amongst different entities with differing goals because they are competing with each other for money.

Now, even if you examine just traditional media companies, where we have seen mergers between AOL with Time Warner, Viacom with CBS, and Comcast with NBC, the media industry’s HHI score — which scores an industry from monopoly on one end to competitive market on the other end — actually remains surprisingly stable within the moderately competitive zone. As communications professor Tom Vizcarrondo found in his 2013 study:

[T]he media industry, despite ebbs and flows in HHI levels, has always been well below the 1,500 level that marks the point where an industry moves from unconcentrated to moderately concentrated. In other words, when viewing the media as a whole, the media industry is consistently characterized by unconcentrated and diverse ownership.

Of course, if you are as old as me, you probably remember when there were only three television stations, and the only newspaper you could access was the local one because there was no Internet (and it was usually soggy if the paperboy forgot about the sprinklers). If so, you will need to remember that you have to look beyond traditional media and include numerous smaller contributors — including bloggers such as myself. As a result, the media landscape is incredibly diverse. These days, anybody can write a blog post, record a podcast, upload a video, or tweet a tweet. If there was a viewpoint being excluded, that would be an under-served market niche that would be very profitable to fill. Furthermore, the incentives of market competition to improve quality and lower price is exactly why capitalism won the Cold War.

I can’t decide which one of the front two has the shinier headddAAGHjfXqs#!.sd*qz&p… BALDNESS. IS. VERY. SEXY. INDEED.

Image via G-Mart Comics.

Most importantly, the cost it would take to ensure everybody hushes up a conspiracy is prohibitively and ridiculously high. If some entity (be it Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, Bill Gates, the Kochs, or the Illuminati) attempted to pay off every single television station, newspaper, website, blogger, YouTuber, or Twitter personality to not report any evidence of their evil misdeeds, the price to convince just the last few holdouts would be astronomical because it would be a commitment to sit on what would be the scoop of the century indefinitely!

Refusing the deal would be extremely lucrative, and accepting it means you can always alter the deal later, Darth Vader screwing over Lando style, because you basically have blackmail power. The only entities that can pull this off are governments with the power of military force behind them, such as in Russia or China. This is because there’s no need to shell out hush money when you can just throw dissidents in prison due to the lack of a First Amendment (but okay, either Professor X or Dr. Strange could also probably pull it off single-handedly. Or the Scarlet Witch. Or Thanos… okay, let me stop there because this could go on forever).

Interestingly, I often see many of the same complainers sharing inaccurate or even highly misleading content from social media (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Twitter). It is certainly true that social media can be a powerful method to organize protests challenging the status quo by circumventing mainstream media outlets that tend to downplay such events. However, it is important to remember two things. First, this issue is mainly regarding story selection and loaded language and not a lack of factual accuracy. Second, and more importantly, social media companies are corporations just like media companies, and that, in the case of Facebook (trillion dollar market capitalization and annual revenues upwards of $80 billion dollars) a corporation that is extremely vested in the status quo now — and like many companies that in the U.S. that are obligated to maximize shareholder value, often seems blithely indifferent to many of the harms it causes. Same for YouTube, which is owned by tech behemoth Google (also a trillion dollar market cap and revenues over $60 billion a year).

It is easy to forget Facebook’s influence when what you see is content shared by someone you know, but what is key to remember is that social media companies only show you a specific tiny subset of all the numerous updates from all your friends and contacts. More importantly, their number one criteria is keeping you addicted, whether it be content that entertains, titillates, comforts, or outrages you. If you would like to circumvent this algorithm, I strongly suggest you configure the platform to show you content (Facebook) in chronological order (Twitter) rather than what its algorithm has learned will keep you addicted. They never make this the default setting because, well, most social media platforms are free.

ELI5: "If something is free, you are the product.": explainlikeimfive
“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” – Andrew Lewis (full origin)
Image via Tereza Litsa.

Remember, when a product or service is free, odds are that you are actually the product. This means you are not the paying customer that the seller really cares about. Someone else is probably paying for your attention or your personal data, meaning that they are the paying customer being catered to. This is true for both television and radio (selling your attention to advertisers) and social media (selling both your attention and your data to any number of entities). And this is exactly why television and social media outlets like YouTube and Facebook tend to produce less satisfying (but more addictive) experiences that pales compared to their paid alternatives like streaming services, newspapers, magazines, films, and books.1

Social media content in particular tends to be highly inaccurate because there is no mechanism for accountability. People, including both your friends and mine, tend to share anything they agree with regardless of accuracy. This is just human nature. More importantly, anyone found to be sharing something inaccurate bears little cost (in contrast to Dan Rather) because they can just delete the inaccurate post and/or act as if nothing ever happened (and as pointing out such inaccuracies can cost friendships, people usually don’t do this as often as they might like to). And forget tracking down who the heck created the meme, because usually you never have any idea (could you tell that the meme at the beginning of this post was from me?). And sure, social media companies might take such content down, but as controversial content increases engagement, they face strong incentives against doing so (and their users also inevitably complain about it). As such, I strongly, strongly recommend against getting your news from social media.

Image via Pew Research.

Both television and social media content also tend to be sensationalist (violence and fires attract more eyeballs than peaceful protests), but television is particularly problematic because it is much more difficult for journalists to be objective in video than in the written form.

If my reasoning doesn’t convince you, just look at the data from Pew Research in the graph to the right. Biased media sources and most social media content are essentially advertisements and propaganda, often from companies doing viral marketing, sometimes from political parties that already have too much power, and occasionally even from foreign countries seeking to sow dissension and chaos. That’s the problem when content has no name behind it. As such, social media is probably not worth very much of your time just like watching ads or sitting through a presentation about condo time shares is really not worth your time — unless you just really enjoy the experience of being sold to (in which case, please leave your phone number and email in the comments!).

Of course, as you may have noticed, news outlets aren’t immune to the issues of sensationalism, bias, and sometimes outright propaganda either. Again, a better understanding of markets can help, namely that suppliers of a good and service respond to demand. If everybody buys only black shoes instead of brown shoes… okay, that’s a boring example that an econ professor might come up with. How about the Transformers instead? Okay, so if more people start buying blue Autobots instead of pink Autobots, toymakers will respond by increasing the number of blue Autobots they make and reduce the number of pink Autobots. After all, any toymaker that does not adjust in this way will see more and more of their work and investment go to waste as their pink Autobots pile up in their inventories unsold.

“Are we considered fraternal twins if we aren’t brothers… or… um… even siblings for that matter?”

Image via Seibertron.com.

When people seek out media outlets, a similar effect occurs. If most consumers seek out unreliable news outlets to comfort themselves instead of to become better informed, news outlets that meet this demand by catering to people’s biases and beliefs (think Democrats watching CNN or Republicans watching Fox) will do better than those that report as objectively and accurately as possible which would mean being the bearer of bad news more often.

Furthermore, news outlets that rely mostly on advertising have similar business models as social media platforms and will similarly act in the best interest of their advertisers instead of their readers/viewers. This includes most television and radio but also free websites, and they predictably tend to provide more titillating sensationalism and clickbait than accurate information. To get reliability, you have to demand reliability.

And there are actually numerous reliable media outlets. Media bias has been a core issue of mine for a few years now, largely due to various attacks by politicians upon journalism as well as the rising prevalence of misinformation on social media. After years of searching, the source of media bias ratings that has won my trust is Media Bias / Fact Check (MB/FC), and you can read my reasons here. If you’re aware of a better resource, please let me know!

So, I think a great place to start is MB/FC’s very lengthy list of least-biased sources. Alas, MB/FC doesn’t have as fancy graphics as the others, but here’s Ad Fontes Media’s chart, which shows the most reliable sources near the top (with original reporting higher than analysis, perhaps due to the subjectivity involved in the latter) and the least biased sources near the middle between the left and right sides (and notice the large number of diverse competitors).

Click image to see a larger version.

Image from Ad Fontes Media.

MB/FC and Ad Fontes Media broadly agree on their bias ratings with only a few discrepancies that I’ve noticed. The main difference I’ve found is that you are much more likely to find a rating for a source in MB/FC than in Ad Fontes Media.

And if you don’t want to rely upon a third party and rely instead upon your own judgment, some key things to pay attention to are whether they are transparent with their ownership and funding, how well they balance story selection (do they criticize politicians from only one party or both?), whether their reporting uses loaded and/or sensationalist language versus neutral wording, how they handle corrections, how they defend their reputation for factual accuracy, and whether they allow comments or publish letters to the editor.

“Did you say run? Ah, yes… um… so… what exactly do you mean by that? To enter myself in an election contest? Execute a command or program upon a computer?”

Last (but definitely not least!) is where they get their funding, as it’s always important to follow the money. If they get most of their revenues from advertisements or selling user data, remember that this means that they wouldn’t really be working for you. So, you definitely want to choose sources that gets at least a significant portion of their revenues from their audience, such as via subscriptions. And if you cannot tell how they make their money, turn and run. Run very, very fast and very, very far away.

The ones I rely upon are The Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal (although I largely ignore their opinion section and will never forgive them for their horrible customer service for all the times I received soggy papers), The Dispatch, Reuters2, the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, George Friedman’s Geopolitical Futures, the Associated Press (AP), and Reason (the magazine). Ideally, you will want more than one to see how an issue is covered from multiple angles and perspectives. And lastly, don’t rely on an outlet’s website, as this opens you up to tactics like clickbait headlines and algorithms tailored to your behavior to keep you on the site much like social media uses. Instead, try to read their print version (e.g., PDF as in WSJ, through a viewer like FT) more likely to be aimed for a broad audience. This is kind of the news outlet equivalent of forcing a social media platform to show you content in chronological order.

Now, to see if you’ve been paying attention, please tell me who you should trust for health advice? A meme on social media, your doctor, someone who watched a doctor’s video posted on YouTube, or my beloved and hapless New York Mets?

Disclosure, the author owns shares of Google, the owner of YouTube.

Reposted from Quora with major edits.

1. AP, Reuters, and also JSTOR are the rare exceptions that have institutional subscribers and offer a limited version of their quality services for free. And speaking of books, the only social media platform that doesn’t seem so bad to me is GoodReads, where everybody is basically encouraging everyone else to read more books (and yes, to buy them as well, but I can get behind that). Return.

2. The only reason I rely upon Reuters more than AP is because Reuters comes bundled with the market app supplied by my employer. Return.

2 thoughts on “On the Reliability of the “MSM””

  1. […] The only other source of media bias ratings is Mondo Times, referenced in this paper by Gentzkow & Shapiro. However, they have a ridiculous media source ranking that has Turner Classic Movies in the top spot and social media platform YouTube in the top ten. I strongly feel that almost all social media platforms belong near the bottom of the list because they have no mechanisms for accountability for factual accuracy. […]


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