The hostile media effect and imagination of audience

2013-11-03

in Books and literature, Politics, Psychology, Science, Writing

Recent work by Gunther and Schmitt (2004) on the hostile media effect offers a partial clarification of our findings. These authors conducted an experiment in which a purposefully crafted neutral text was presented to experts involved in the ongoing controversy over genetically modified organisms. For one randomized group of experts, this text was presented as a news item; for the other, the identical text was presented as a research paper from a senior undergraduate student. In comparing participants’ evaluations of bias in the text, Gunther and Schmitt found striking differences. Whereas the presentation of the text as a news item yielded extreme and contradictory assessments of bias, the identical text presented as an undergraduate research paper was generally judged to be balanced. The authors argue that this reflects the importance of experts’ “imagination of audience” as a critical factor in their understanding of texts and communications. In this sense, experts are reacting against the media based on their understanding of the competency and vulnerability of the general public: “Partisans may believe that information in a mass medium will reach a large audience of neutral, and perhaps more vulnerable, readers – readers who could be convinced by unbalanced or misleading information to support the ‘wrong’ side.” In short, Gunther and Schmitt’s research suggests that negative views of the media related more directly to experts’ views of the general public than to the behaviours of media institutions themselves.

Young, Nathan and Ralph Matthews. The Aquaculture Controversy in Canada: Activism, Policy, and Contested Science. 2010. p. 149 (paperback)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. November 3, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Gunther, A. C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55–70. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2004.tb02613.x

coyote November 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm

For what it’s worth, a former Star ombudsman, Rod Goodman, found that reader background also plays a role in perception of story bias.

He did a fairly rough survey of readers who complained to him of bias in a story about an episode Egypt/Israeli conflict, notable only for bein one of many. Depending on which side they sympathized with, they almost invariably saw the story as biased in sympathy toward the “other side”.

I doubt that his conclusion was scientific, but he felt that since complaints were about equal, the story was probably balanced to any reader that didn’t think they had a stake or connection in the conflict.

For what it’s worth…

Milan November 4, 2013 at 10:17 pm

In my experience, scientists are often unwilling to drop their discipline-specific jargon, even when trying to present policy-relevant information to decision-makers and members of the general public. Certainly one of the more challenging areas of policy-making now are those where complex evaluation of scientific information is necessary.

alena November 7, 2013 at 10:19 am

Very interesting in light of the recent Economist issue addressing the bias in contemporary scientific research.

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