Tampa economist examines what fuels media bias

University of Tampa economics professor Cagdas Agirdas recently published some intriguing findings on media bias in the Journal of Media Economics that challenges some commonly held beliefs over how media outlets operate.

Agirdas set out to figure out whether it’s the political agendas of news agencies that slants stories, or the market’s preferences.

“I frequently hear people complain about how biased the media is, and I have always wondered why the news outlets that are perceived to be the most biased also enjoy the largest viewership/readership,” Agirdas said.

Agirdas wondered if it could be that people prefer to receive their news from sources that already agree with their worldview. If that were the case, he hypothesized, it would be to the financial benefit of media companies to feed into those news preferences.

To do that, Agirdas looked at how newspapers with different editorial leanings cover unemployment news before and after a major newspaper closure in a given market. He figured that if it were the editorial staff that most contributed to the paper’s bias, then the closure of a close rival would do nothing to change coverage at that paper. If, however, the level of bias changed after closures, it could be due to the leanings of the readership.

“I found significant moderation of bias after the closure of a rival newspaper,” Agirdas said. “This is interesting, because many people blame media outlets for their bias, instead of the appetite for bias among readers.”

The findings, he said, mean that a different approach may be necessary to fix issues of media bias.

“From time to time, there are calls to split up ownership of media outlets to avoid monopolization,” Agirdas said. “However, if the media outlets are simply serving the preferences of their viewers, such an approach would not create better outcomes. Two newspapers owned by the same company might disseminate completely different political views if they are trying to appeal to readers of opposing views.”

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