Unbiased news is a matter of incentives: the case of war news

How good the media are to deal with the impact of incentives on the crafting of news? What happens in some war zones tells a lot.

When reporters can’t go on war zones because it’s too dangereous they rely on local informants. Very often, these informants aren’t neutral in the ongoing war, they fight for one side or the other. This could be the problem.

Patrick Cockburn on The Independant:

It is inevitable that an opposition movement fighting for its life in wartime will only produce, or allow to be produced by others, information that is essentially propaganda for its own side. The fault lies not with them but a media that allows itself to be spoon-fed with dubious or one-sided stories.

Later (my own highlights):

None of this is new. The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

As an economist, I can only but back this idea: people always respond to incentives, and to understand any human action you need to (at least) consider who face which incentives. Here, the fighters who provide news have a clear incentive: gaining support to help them defeat their ennemy. And news can be a powerful tool to help them reach their goals, for instance by only showing atrocities made by their ennemy (and not showing their owns). Expecting someone with such strong incentive to provide balanced news is a fantasy.

What’s bother me is how naive the media are 1. Why is there any caution, any warning on this? I mean, news coming from an incentivized people say something, it’s a real information. But you need to treat it accordingly – not as an objective piece of information but as an information coming from an incentivized party. So why the hell the media don’t do that?

Being able to critically think about themselves isn’t something the media are good at. It’s even the contrary – and it ended by the flawed U.S. Presidential campaign coverage (and I’m not sure things are better now). But if you want to be fully informative you should acknowledge that you face incentives. As a media, it’s to sell subscriptions or advertising. It will direct how you write, how you choose your stories, and so on. Even I, on The Signal, I face incentives too! And they have an impact on my choices.

The problem raised by Patrick Cockburn is in fact a deep one. And what I don’t like is that no one really talk about it altough it lies at the core of the media, and journalism, and how we get news in our democracies.

Source : independant.co.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *