Political behavior…

An item that I posted about American versus British newspapers has drawn many comments, one of them from Ken Waight, owner of the excellent Lying in Ponds site:

I think there is an important distinction which should be made between ideological bias and partisan bias. An ideological bias in the media is not a problem if it is openly acknowledged (as is apparently done in England), and Eric Alterman may be right that it would lead to more interesting newspapers and less public apathy. But the presence of an excessive partisan bias transforms journalism into advertising, too distorted and unreliable to be useful in any serious political debate.

Andrew, can you elaborate a little on the studies which have found that “citizens find partisan information more politically useful than so-called objective information”? I’m not sure I understand what that means.

I agree that the distinction between partisanship and ideology is particularly important, and Waight should be commended for his good work in keeping that distinction clearly defined.

And, yes, I can elaborate. The studies I alluded to spring from the study of political behavior. One of most noted scholars in that area was Anthony Downs, who wrote “Economic Theory of Democracy” (1957). Downs maintained that people participate in politics and acquire information about politics because such participation and acquisition are “intrinsic” values. In other words, this is normal human behavior and not necessarily culturally-driven behavior. But to participate and acquire information takes effort, and citizens will only spend as much effort as necessary to get what they want. If the “costs” are too high, citizens won’t participate or acquire. Downs demonstrated that people reduce the costs of acquiring political information by seeking out sources that fit their own way of thinking (ideology) and/or promote their party of identification (partisanship). By reducing the “costs” of acquiring political information, partisan sources are more politically useful, i.e. you don’t have to work hard to get what you want. It doesn’t seem to matter to the citizen seeking such information that the partisan source may not contribute to serious political debate.

For more information, see: Calvert R. C. 1985. “The Value of Biased Information: A Rational Choice Model of Political Advice.” Journal of Politics. 4: 530-55.