Presentation during the Conference: Expert Knowledge in the age of declining trust in the media
Dr. Dennis Pilon, York University, Navigating media biases - Video clip
Dennis Pilon’s research has focused on questions of democratization and how countries become democratic. In this context, Pilon has interpreted the role of electoral systems and the promises/ challenges of electoral reform. In addition, he has studied media and looked at how media represented the debate over Ontario’s voting system in the 2007 referendum on the voting system in Ontario. How balanced were media in their coverage? Did they equally represent the different sides? Who were the experts? What were the kind of arguments were presented?
Pilon’s research showed that the media are also political players in the process driving public policy making. For instance, depending on the divisiveness of the particular issue, the ability to obtain coverage in the media will largely depend on how closely one is aligned with the position that is dominant in the media themselves.
A good illustration is the national voting system reform debate: National media are predominantly against it and widely ignorant of how diverse public opinion is on this issue. In fact, most of the columnists and editorial pages were completely opposed to electoral reform and this attitude led to who was featured in their newspapers or TV programs.
The key themes of Pilon’s speech were (1) experts in the media and (2) public trust in media.
(1) Experts in media
The use of experts in media has changed over time. Going back to the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s media tended to do the research themselves or go to experts who are directly involved with the specific issue. However, they didn’t interact with academics the way they do today. Now, media are turning to academics as experts because reporters do not have the specific knowledge. Earlier, media developed their own expertise with reporters who knew their topics inside and out, often because they worked on them for years on end. However, today’s reporters do not have the same depth because they do not have the same opportunities in their professional careers. Hence, they need academic experts. Still, choosing experts is not necessarily a neutral task. It is the nature of issues in the fields of history or the social sciences that there is a controversial debate on almost all issues. In this respect, experts are regularly chosen based on where they stand on particular issues.
(2) Public trust in media
What about trust in media? Throughout the 20th century mainstream media were regularly subject to complaints about bias and the complaints could typically be located across the left-right political axis. Media were largely to be biased towards the center right of the political spectrum and against the center-left. With the rise of communication studies many of those biases were confirmed by scholars. The media tend to speak with an upper-class accent and tend to speak in terms of right-leaning views. What has changed? The nature of the complaints has changed. Today it is the right that often complains about media. In addition, we can detect a major change in the nature of mainstream news consumption.
Complaints from the right about the media are partly correct, as content analysis has shown that there is a left-wing bias in media on social issues. Nevertheless, the media are still very much biased towards the right on economic issues. In this latter sense, the right-wing critique is misguided, as economic issues are still very much resented in terms of a right-of-centre perspective.