The Outrage Industry
As most of you know, a while back I started (and then abruptly stopped) an inquiry as to why I felt uncomfortable with what I was seeing in the liberal and left-wing media outlets. And while I’m not ready to dive back into the deep-end of that pool, I do want to stick my big toe in a wee bit.
This past week before departing for Leaguefest, I finished the book The Outrage Industry by Jeffery M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj. I’m trying to be wary of my own potential confirmation bias toward the book, because it largely vindicates much of what I’ve written here over the past three years, especially the Sailing Toward Irrelevance and the Ideology is the Enemy series. In a more perfect world, I’d have read the book before beginning my Right Path series, since it gives both data and at least the rough outline of an evasive quarry that I still cannot fully articulate. As I say, I’m going to be more cautious before fully engaging this subject publically, but I think Berry and Sobieraj’s findings deserve some amount of discussion, picking apart, and pushback by the hive-mind here at OT.
The Outrage Industry is a compilation of several media-related studies done since the mid-2000s by Berry and Sobieraj, respectively political science and sociology professors from Tufts University. Their data argues that the major media outlets that cater to specific right- and left-wing tastes rely on outrage to accelerate profitability; further, they themselves argue that this creates a negative impact on the country and the electorate.
As a part of their studies, Berry and Sobieraj measured instances of those characteristics they deemed outrage related. These characteristics included what they separately termed Mockery, Insulting Language, Name Calling, Ideologically Extremizing Language, Belittling, Verbal Sparring, Emotional Display, Emotional Language, Obscene Language, Character Assassination, Slippery Slope Argumentation, Sparring, and Conflagration. More interestingly to me, however, was the measuring of this characteristic: Misrepresentative Exaggeration. Misrepresentative Exaggeration is defined as “when a writer or speaker significantly misrepresents or obscures the truth” — or, as it’s more commonly known, “making s**t up.” (Or possibly, “repeating s**t someone else made up.”) Berry and Sobieraj chose to measure these characteristics in only the ten top rated/trafficked conservative and liberal ideologically-news driven TV shows, radio programs, newspaper columnists, publications, and blogs, to ensure their results were not skewed by crackpots. (Though, obviously, your own definition of “crackpot” may vary.)
Predictably and ironically, the media sources The Outrage Industry describes gave it some attention here and there, but they did so only in the most fleeting and vapid ways. As far as I could tell, almost no one who covered its release focused on what, to me, was it’s key takeaway: It appears that part of what is actually driving ratings with the left and right media is those medias’ lack of accuracy.
Mind you, it should be noted that there is still not a working equivalence between the two sides in this area. In a revelation that will surprise absolutely zero non-conservatives, instances of Misrepresentative Exaggeration occur far more on the right than on the left — almost three times more often, in fact. However, instances of Misrepresentative Exaggeration on the left are still surprisingly high; what’s more, they’re growing. (The increase in inaccuracies and other outrage characteristics found in left and right leaning media sources has increased no less than 5,760% in the past generation.) Indeed, Berry and Sobieraj’s data suggests a correlation between media news and opinion outlets being “for” a side and being inaccurate about the news — which, I suppose, makes their data both the kind of lie you’d expect to come out of our communist school system and hippie punching. It also potentially undermines both Jonah Goldberg’s and Elias’s argument that partisan journalists produce better, more honest journalism.
Other interesting bits from the data:
- Though they score far higher in the Mockery, Belittling, and Conflagration categories, blogs actually have the lowest instances of Misrepresentative Exaggeration, making them more accurate than cable news, news radio, or newspaper columnists.
- In almost every category, the right measures more outrageous than the left. The two exceptions are Belittling and Verbal Sparring. However, the measurements in all categories (except Misrepresentative Exaggeration) all still remarkably close.
- There are now over 3,800 talk radio stations in America right now.
- Despite the growing discord and anger between the right and the left, they are actually growing closer, not further apart, in terms of public policy issues. This suggests that those selling outrage are cynically, manipulatively, and artificially creating the growing hostility now embedded in the American politic.
Obviously, I recommend the book quite highly. If you’ve read it, I’m curious to know your thoughts on it. If you haven’t, I’m curious to know your thoughts on the bits of data I’ve shared.