Vail Daily column: The hostile media
In 1985, three Stanford University researchers conducted an experimental study looking at people’s perceptions of media coverage.
The researchers recruited university students from both sides of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict (targeting the pro-Arab and pro-Israeli student associations) to watch six segments of national media coverage on a 1982 event known as the Sabra and Chatilla Massacre in Beirut, Lebanon.
In what is now an all too familiar script, between 460 and 3,500 Palestinian civilians were killed by an Israeli-supported Lebanese militia in a Muslim neighborhood and refugee camp. The attack was in the wake of the bomb assassination of a newly elected Christian Lebanese leader. The Israelis and the Lebanese army claimed that the camps were dens of terrorists.
The findings from the Stanford study were fascinating. The researchers determined that partisans on each side of the Arab-Israeli dispute, after watching the exact same news reports on the same event, felt that the coverage was biased against their side. Pro-Arab students felt the coverage was biased toward Israel, and pro-Israeli students felt just the opposite.
Further, the researchers found that the more engaged and knowledgeable subjects were about the conflict, the more bias against their side they perceived. Interestingly, research subjects who were neutral on the Arab-Israeli conflict (but who were knowledgeable of it) found the media coverage to be fairly even-handed.
The researchers dubbed their findings as the “hostile-media phenomenon.” This effect can be boiled down to say that the more involved people are in some issue, the more likely they are to feel that relatively neutral media coverage is biased against their perspective.
Like rabid fans on both sides at a hotly contested sporting event, everyone hates the referee.
As an extension, the “hostile-media phenomenon” also helps explain the emergence and success of media outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, which respectively pander to the politically right or left. The more partisan we become, the only coverage we tend to accept as unbiased is that which reinforces our own predisposition.
At this point, many readers may be wondering why the “education guy” is writing about the media.
While I have always had an interest in political communications and did study the subject in detail as a graduate student many years ago. I bring up this old study and the “hostile media phenomenon” as a way to frame my message of thanks to the Vail Daily and to explain the difficult environment in which they work.
For nearly two years, I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to our community newspaper and engage people in Eagle County (as well as across Colorado and the country) in a discussion about education.
While there may be one out there, I don’t know of a single sitting superintendent in the country who does this or a community newspaper that allows for such a forum.
The Vail Daily certainly has its share of detractors and outright haters. From community bloggers to individual conversations at local social events, almost everyone has an opinion about the Vail Daily and the fairness of its coverage and editorial perspective.
While it is an important role of the local media to report on community events, it is also their job to dig into the real and substantive issues, cover the touchy subjects, expose corruption, and call it as they see it.
Yes, the people at the Vail Daily are human and sometimes they get it wrong.
However, we are so incredibly fortunate (and should be very grateful) to have this professional publication that reports with quality and consistency.
Among all the blessings and positives in our community, thanks to the staff at the Vail Daily for your part in making this a wonderful place to live and work.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.