Fair Movie Reviews

US news media are not biased to favorably review movies made by their owners:

We find no evidence of bias in the reviews for 20th Century Fox movies in the News Corp. outlets, nor for the reviews of Warner Bros. movies in the Time Warner outlets. We can reject even small effects, such as biasing the review by one extra star (out of four) every 13 movies. We test for differential bias when the return to bias is plausibly higher, examine bias by media outlet and by journalist, as well as editorial bias. We also consider bias by omission: whether the media at conflict of interest are more likely to review highly-rated movies by affiliated studios. In none of these dimensions do we find systematic evidence of bias. Lastly, we document that conflict of interest within a movie aggregator does not lead to bias either. We conclude that media reputation in this competitive industry acts as a powerful disciplining force. (more)

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    Interesting. Political opinions of owners do find their way to the printing presses and I remember that Rupert Murdoch’s “news” outlets were obviously non-critical of him compared to other outlets during the news of the world scandal in Britain. The same thing apparently does not happen to movie reviews, even though the financial stakes are huge and a bias could be effective since most people are not aware of the corporate links.

    Perhaps it is simply more difficult to select journalists who will write what you want them to write about a variety of different movies, than it is to select for journalists with certain political views. The latter do not feel like they’re being biased and do not have to compromise personal beliefs: the bias does not come from the individual but from the composition of the team, while with movie reviews the bias would have to come from the individual.

    • charlie

      How about this:
      1. People want biased political news that flatters their prior beliefs, but unbiased movie reviews because they don’t want to sit through bad movies. People consume both news and movies for recreation and as forms of entertainment.
      2. A profit-maximizing media outlet will provide both.
      3. Partisan media-managers will self-select into the biased political outlet that reflects their own views. They have a comparative advantage after all, which a detailed understanding of the political sympathies of the target market.

      • brendan_r

        The supply side has to be part of this story. Look, the typical insurance salesmen isn’t an idealist. He’s pragmatic, a born BSer, with an ego detached from any notion of contribution to the greater good. He spins w/ no conscience.

        A journo is the opposite: he’s idealistic, and his gigantic ego is intertwined with confidence that his work makes the world a bit better. The journo does not like to knowingly spin the truth; it’d hurt his ego.

        But journos do spin in some contexts. They spin when they’re genuinely deluded, or when the spin is a means to a greater good.

        What kind of loser spins a movie review to please the higher-ups? Certainly not this bohemian w/ a Literature degree from Harvard.

        But it sure would be neat to have our first black president…

      • IMASBA

        Biased reviews don’t need to be obviously biased (in fact it’s not that difficult to write a convincing review with a positive bias). As it is movie reviews differ and the reviews are basically random with respect to corporate ties. If the reviews shifted more to coincide with corporate interests the public would not notice. Of course that would mean the average of the reviews would not matter so there would be no extra profit in it for any of the studios unless the shift caused at least one of the studios to get a positive bias from a bigger large news outlet or one that’s more popular among their target audience.

  • arch1

    Assuming the study authors’ funding survives scrutiny:-), how does a self-respecting economist explain this?

    • brendan_r

      Coordination failure? i.e. it’s easier for a firm to coordinate certain kinds of biases (rah Progressivism!) than others (rah our holding company’s profit margins!).

      Which reminds me: if ever a firm’s value was perfectly aligned with an ideology, where any action that promoted that ideology also boosted shareholder value, that’d be quite the juggernaut. Something like early PayPal?

      • arch1

        Thanks Brendan. I don’t think this explains *no* bias, however.

      • IMASBA

        It would not be difficult to coordinate, it would be far more easy than it is for fox news to keep their people toeing the conservative line. The only problem is you have to find people who are willing to write whatever you want them to but who are still taken seriously by their colleagues and the public.

      • brendan_r

        “it would be far more easy than it is for fox news to keep their people toeing the conservative line. ”

        Uh, no. It’s trivial to hire lots of people who sincerely believe in any particular political ideology. That’s why an ideology becomes popular: because people like to believe in it. People with nothing to personally gain will go out in the cold and chant political slogans. Let me know when you see analogous altruistic enthusiasm for a company’s bottom-line.

      • IMASBA

        That was my earlier point: if you can find the “right” kind of people for the job it’s easy, but if you have to do it through coordination of people who may not agree with you then it becomes difficult. Fox news has a difficult coordination problem, which they resolve through their selection process (they don’t hire people blindly or based on credentials alone). Coordinating one movie reviewer is far easier than coordinating a whole editorial department, but selection of candidates is much more difficult and that seems to win out over the relative ease of coordination.

      • Then you disagree with the article, which claims, “media reputation in this competitive industry acts as a powerful disciplining force.”

        My understanding is that the studios no longer make their money from films. Films are losers economically, designed to increase the prestige of the studio. [This is compatible with your dysfunctional view.]

      • brendan_r

        No, I didn’t intend to disagree. They’re saying that consumer demand for objectivity disciplines the reviews. And I’m saying there are forces at work on the supply side too.

        Objectivity is in greater demand and easier to supply the further you get from politically charged topics.

      • Doug

        Large firms tend to be highly decoupled. Separate units are mostly treated as separate businesses. Evaluation is largely done by having each sub-unit generate its own accounting statements, with each expected to turn an individual profit. Only a thin layer of upper management coordinates between units, so inter-unit bandwidth tends to be quite low. Large firms self-coordinate much less than one would expect. The trend in modern corporate management has only gone more towards this ideal. Berkshire is the quintessential example.

        The reason for this is largely the same reason that large software systems tend to be decoupled. Managing that level of complexity is extremely difficult, so one needs to sub-divide the problem as neatly as possible. Even if this sacrifices some level of efficiency. Unexpected software bugs tend to hide when large modules are tightly coupled. In the same way incompetent managers and bad business practices crop up when units are evaluated on fuzzy, complicated metrics, like how much they helped other units, rather than hard self-contained metrics like bottom line.

    • Perhaps the economic unintelligibility comes from the characterization of the movie industry as “competitive.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t mean that the market is highly competitive, since they admit that entry costs are very high.

      [At least that’s what first threw me.]

  • brendan_r

    So ideology trumps the profit motive in subscription media?

    Reminds me of Steven Pinker’s zinger:

    “Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after, yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz.”

    Movies aren’t important enough to lie about.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      A simpler explanation is that there is more profit in retaining good and reputable movie reviewers. If you forced them to shill, they’d go somewhere else.

      And reveal that your publication shills for the firm’s films.