How your Washington news gets distorted by media priorities

You may not see much news coverage on the world’s 100,000 airplane flights that land safely every day. Let one of them crash, however, and you’ll see smoldering wreckage and sobbing relatives for 24 hours.

It’s the same in news coverage of U.S. politics. Now for the first time in memory a research team has examined thousands of news interview transcripts and documented what might seem an obvious but very important conclusion: Extreme views and words by far get the most attention, air time and views online.

People who speak in moderate tones with reasonable views pretty much get ignored or forgotten. And this phenomenon then feeds on itself over and over and over. And over.

The lesson in all this — especially for House members who must campaign every two years — is that being the mouthiest, loudest, most extreme interview and speaker is the way to get noticed by mass media. And they often stage conflict and confrontations to obtain media attention. Otherwise, people back home might well get the impression you’re really doing anything in Washington.

Some people believe we had a recent president who garnered steady attention this way, controlling the media spotlight and drowning out competitors and opponents through most news cycles with an endless stream of provocative, off-the-wall pronouncements and statements, which were then trumpeted around the globe.

Writing in the Journal of Communication the three researchers — Joshua Darr, Jeremy Padgett and Johanna Dunaway — concluded: “Today’s news media environment incentivizes gatekeeping practices that lead to a bias toward content containing partisan conflict and ideological extremity.”

The study is titled “As Seen on TV: How Gatekeeping Makes the U.S. House Seem More Extreme.” They found that the media’s skewed choice of interview subjects is dominated by ideologically extreme members of Congress who then get to speak more often than moderates on both cable and broadcast networks.

They pored over 46,218 news transcripts of House members speaking on-air between 2005 and 2013. The report says:

We found that the House that’s shown on the news is much more ideologically extreme than the actual House…..Today’s new House members understand that media coverage will help them achieve their goals, and that expressing extreme ideas is one way to earn it.

This vast over-representation of partisan extremes across media outlets produces for millions of news consumers across the country a skewed image and impression of “work” and conflict in the Congress. Media will argue their reports are accurate, which may be true. But as is t he usual case, when it comes to political content out of the nation’s capitol, it lacks context and perspective.

It’s human nature to talk and gossip more about conflict than contentment — about the neighborhood couple heard arguing at all hours, not the nearby family with two earners and successful children.

In recent years, news consumers have lost vast confidence in news media due to a blatant bias for one party’s members and agenda. There is no realistic roadmap to change that and no mechanism beyond their own conscience to recalculate media’s gatekeeping priorities.

So, it’s up to conscientious and savvy news consumers themselves to become more calculating and judicious in selecting their news sources and their individual reports, allowing for these known slants.

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