16 April 2010

Laziness Bias

Julian Sanchez | Paging Nate Silver

The headline on yesterday’s New York Times piece on the demographics of Tea Partiers read: “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated“—than the general public, that is. The nutgraf adds that they’re also likely to be older, whiter, maler, and (shocking!) more conservative.

Now, the obvious question for me is: Why wouldn’t you try to disentangle a bunch of factors that we know full well are strongly interdependent? After all, we know that older white men are likely to have higher incomes and more schooling than a random sample of the population—and, of course, education and income are themselves related. Obviously, the headline gets a lot less interesting if it turns out to amount to: “Tea Party Backers Exactly as Wealthy and Educated as You’d Expect for Their Demographic.” [...]

I have neither the time nor the chops to sort this out, but it does seem odd that nobody at the Times decided to commission an analysis.
Only odd if you respect the NY Times.

This is a good example of media bias in action. No, not because it's a reputedly liberal organization casting a conservative movement in a bad light. That might be true, but it's not what interests me.

The real bias is for reporters to do less work. (Just like most people in other occupations.) As soon as some reporter hears "tea partiers richer than average people" they've got a story to start writing. No need to dig down and figure out if that is the most accurate way to cast the facts of the situation. It fits the overall narrative they're already comfortable with, and they don't particularly like getting their hands dirty with numbers anyway, so they just run with what they've got.  It also gets harder to write the piece if they've got to explain all that regression analysis to the average reader, so it's much more tempting to just ignore all that and go with the facile, if irrelevant, framing they already have.

Yeah, some reporters obviously put in the work to get this stuff right, but reporters on average are just as lazy as everyone else, on average. It's the laziness bias, not any liberal bias, that is the important factor.

1 comment:

  1. Laziness bias... had not heard that one before. Nicely done. And you are right that it's not just reporters who are lazy. For instance, as John Von Neumann once said: "The practical engineer is one who perpetuates the errors of his predecessors." Same thing as what you are describing here for reporters, I think.